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Study shows empathy key to closing racial disparities in healthcare

LatinaLista — There are two instances that universally trigger the “Awww” reaction — seeing the face of a baby and the face of a baby animal, such as, a puppy, monkey, kitten, etc.


The image of innocence can’t help but pull at the heartstrings. Without even working at it, most people find themselves automatically empathizing with the baby’s defenselessness and before we know it, feelings to protect the baby are aroused.

Yet, what happens when that baby gets older? Well, it doesn’t take a scientific study to tell us what we already know — empathy gets harder to come by, especially when we are of different races.

In a study published online in February in the journal PAIN, researchers found that both college students and nurses, participating in the study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, went to greater lengths to ease the pain of members of their own race.

“I want to be very clear about this: We’re not saying health care professionals are racist,” said Brian Drwecki, a psychology graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “This is not racism. Racism is a conscious act of hate. We find it very unlikely that health care professionals are aware that they are making these biases, let alone trying to actively hurt black patients.”

The participants in the study were asked to view videos of people suffering from shoulder pain as they were put through a series of range-of-motion tests. The participants studied the pain reflected in the faces of the patients and prescribed treatment accordingly.

It was found that white participants “ordered significantly more pain treatment for white patients, and scored higher on tests measuring the empathy they felt for the patients who received preferential treatment.

Yet, researchers found a very simple way to trigger the same level of empathy among the participants for all the patients. Researchers asked half of the participants to spend a moment imagining how the patient feels about their pain and how it’s affecting their life before making a treatment decision.

That simple act yielded startling results. Just by shifting their perspective, the student participants reduced their disparity in pain treatment by 98 percent and for the nurses it was 55 percent.

“The cool thing is, as humans, we can increase our empathy,” Drwecki says. “You may not be the most naturally empathic person, but you can try these interventions and feel them working. Yes, this study demonstrates that racial bias in pain treatment exists, but, more importantly, it teaches us that it’s not inevitable.”

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