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Racial Bias in Medicine and Racial Disparities in COVID-19

Research by IPR’s Sylvia Perry sheds light on racial disparities around COVID-19

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The [COVID-19] racial disparities we are observing are really just shining a spotlight on something we have known already existed, not only in terms of who has greater access to care, but also whose life is valued and who is most deserving of help.”

Sylvia Perry
Assistant professor of psychology and IPR associate

Mask and Syringe

Recent news stories have highlighted the racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths nationally and locally in Chicago, with many noting that the “great equalizer” has been far from equal. Black and Latinx Americans are dying at higher rates of COVID-19 than White Americans and more have ended up hospitalized, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

There are several reasons why minorities may be especially vulnerable to the coronavirus: Minorities are more likely to have underlying health issues that make them at higher risk for getting severely ill with COVID-19. They are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 through essential work, and racism within the medical profession has created a lack of access to healthcare and led them to distrust doctors.

Psychologist and IPR associate Sylvia Perry studies racial bias in medicine, and her work has direct implications for the racial disparities around COVID-19. In a study, Perry and her colleagues surveyed 164 doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals in the U.S. and France, finding that American healthcare workers viewed White patients as more personally responsible for their health and more likely to adhere to doctor’s recommendations, relative to Black patients. French healthcare workers did not display significant racial bias toward patients. In the same way, Perry explained, some have blamed racial minorities for contracting COVID-19.  

“One of the narratives I have observed is that people suggest that racial minorities, Black and Latinx people in particular, might be dying or experiencing higher rates of COVID because they are engaging in risky and irresponsible behaviors,” Perry said. 

This belief that minorities do not take personal responsibility for their health can translate from wearing masks and social distancing to underlying health conditions. The CDC notes that those with underlying health conditions such as moderate to severe asthma, heart conditions, and diabetes are at a higher risk for the coronavirus—many of which Black Americans suffer from at higher rates than White Americans. 

Perry said the idea that minorities are already “more likely to have these illnesses” adds to the narrative that Black people do not take personal responsibility for their own health. These beliefs could influence whether minority patients seek a diagnosis or make them fearful about how they will be perceived if they test positive for COVID-19.

“The [COVID-19] racial disparities we are observing are really just shining a spotlight on something we have known already existed, not only in terms of who has greater access to care, but also whose life is valued and who is most deserving of help,” Perry explained.  

Other research by Perry and her colleagues shows promise for reducing bias among healthcare workers by increasing the number of interactions they have with racial minorities. Increased contact with Black students in medical school and working with underserved minority communities as a student were shown to increase positive attitudes toward Black people and the desire to provide care in underserved areas.

“These kinds of experiences may help increase non-Black medical professionals’ empathy toward Black people because they may be more likely to see Black individuals as a part of their ingroup, and less likely to rely on stereotypes when judging Black people,” Perry pointed out.

When it comes to programs beyond medical schools, Perry believes Black and Latinx Americans would benefit from policies that provide better quality care for everyone, such as giving hospitals more personal protective equipment, so doctors are not forced to decide which patients deserve resources. Giving greater protection to essential workers would also help minorities, she explained, noting they are often in jobs that can’t be done remotely.

While it is encouraging that Congress does seem to be paying attention to racial disparities in health because of the heightened media coverage, Perry said it is also concerning that some people have only now begun to understand the issue when scholars have been studying it for decades.

She said that the lack of knowledge about racial disparities by some policymakers makes her worried that change could take a long time, and “it won't necessarily be in the middle of the pandemic.”

Sylvia Perry is an assistant professor of psychology and an IPR associate.

Photo credit: Pexels

Published: June 4, 2020.