Racial Bias in Heart Disease Treatment

August 16, 2007

Guest blogger Rachel Walden of Women’s Health News is posting here this week, while Christine is on vacation.

The Washington Post is reporting on a new study of physicians’ attitudes and treatment of patients and how racial bias affects their decision-making.

Emergency and internal medicine physicians in Boston and Atlanta were surveyed about their biases, and presented with a case scenario of a hypothetical male patient, who some were told was white, and others were told was African-American.

The physicians demonstrated a number of unconscious biases, including judging the hypothetical black patients to be less cooperative with medical treatment and a decreased likelihood of providing appropriate anti-clot treatment to African-Americans, despite being more likely to identify those patients as having heart attacks.

As the CDC reports, death rates from heart disease were 30% higher in 2002 for African Americans than whites, prompting questions about whether the differences come from biological or treatment disparities. Despite heart disease being the number one killer of women, and African American women suffering from higher rates of death from heart disease than their white counterparts, no female hypothetical patients were included in the study. However, it does suggest that there is work to be done in making sure all patients receive appropriate, evidence-based care free of physician bias.

The Washington Post article requires registration; try BugMeNot if you have trouble logging in. The full-text of the study is freely available online.

Related to this topic, the Department of Health and Human Services’s Hospital Compare tool allows you to search for hospitals in your area and see how they perform on measures such as providing aspirin or other anti-clotting therapy to heart attack patients upon arrival, although this data is not broken down by race.

Also check out OBOS’s Judy Norsigian’s op ed, “Women and Heart Disease: Selling Statins.” The authors challenge the prevailing view that women at risk of heart disease, but who don’t actually have heart disease or diabetes, should take cholesterol-lowering drugs, and examines how the pharmaceutical industry promotes unproven treatments.

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