Medical condescension kills people of color

There are many ways that medical professionals can cause or significantly contribute to the demise of their patients. Some commit overt acts such as administering the wrong medication. Others cause patients to die due to their negligence and inaction during medical crises.

One often-overlooked way that physicians, nurses and others in the medical field can contribute to a patient's deteriorating condition and eventual death is through medical condescension.

When your race dictates your treatment

For one homeless woman in a metropolitan city in the Midwest, the dismissive treatment she received cost her life. She sought medical assistance for a sprained ankle at a trio of hospitals' emergency rooms.

During her third and final attempt, the patient was arrested for trespassing and hauled off to jail. She was later found dead in her cell. At autopsy, doctors found she'd died when she experienced a pulmonary embolism as clots of blood broke loose in the deep veins of her injured leg.

The patient had three strikes against her -- she was black, she was chronically homeless, and she likely suffered from some mental illness or behavioral disorder. Was she treated as less-than-credible during her search for adequate diagnoses and relief of her leg problems? It seems certain that she was. It's doubtful that a white suburban housewife would have wound up in jail for her persistence.

Is patient skin color used as subtle cue of criminality?

Humans have prejudices, and doctors and nurses are human. While it is unrealistic to say that these medical professionals won't feel inherently different about people of color if they have that prejudice, their profession demands that they thrust aside all of those feelings. This allows them to provide the highest standard of care to all patients, regardless of race or other factors.

But many people of color who seek treatment in the ER wind up treated as if they were criminals instead of sick people needing medical interventions. In fact, both Hispanic and African-American men report that they are often denied pain medication for fractures.

The reluctance of medical professionals to prescribe and dispense sufficient pain medication to people of color even extends to their pediatric patients. It's assumed in some of the cases that the kids are exaggerating or even faking their pain.

Know your rights under HIPPA, other laws

All patients -- regardless of race or national origin -- should have a basic understanding of their rights to emergency medical treatment under the law, as well as their protections under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). Unless you understand the laws, you won't be able to take legal action later if your rights are violated or your treatment is detrimental.

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