A doctor’s body language may reveal racial bias against seriously ill black patients, a new study suggests.
The finding could help explain why dying black patients are much more likely than whites to ask for more extensive life-saving measures and to report worse communication with their doctors, the researchers said.
“Although we found that physicians said the same things to their black and white patients, communication is not just the spoken word. It also involves nonverbal cues, such as eye contact, body positioning and touch,” said senior study author Dr. Amber Barnato.
“Poor nonverbal communication — something the physician may not even be aware he or she is doing — could explain why many black patients perceive discrimination in the health-care setting,” said Barnato, an associate professor of clinical and translational medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
However, the study wasn’t designed to show a cause-and-effect relationship; it was only able to show that communication differences exist.
The study was published in the January issue of The Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.
The study included 33 hospital-based attending physicians. Black and white actors were asked to portray patients dying from advanced stomach or pancreatic cancer. Their scripts were identical.
The doctors’ scores on nonverbal interactions were 7 percent lower when dealing with black patients than with white patients, according to the researchers.