Physicians' body language said to reveal racial bias

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Physicians' Body Language Said To Reveal Racial Bias

A social experiment has shown that physicians tend to use fewer nonverbal cues that translate to compassion when treating black patients compared to whites.

Publishing in The Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine believe this could explain why black patients are more prone to request "extraordinary life-sustaining measures," and report worse communication with doctors than white patients do.

The study's senior author, Amber Barnato, M.D., 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. 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 healthcare setting."

For example, physicians were more likely to touch white patients in a sympathetic manner and stand directly at their bedside.

Meanwhile, black patients perceived doctors who stood in doorways or held their binders out in front of them as being "defensive or disengaged."

Physicians were scored on their verbal and nonverbal bedside manner with actors portraying patients and family members.

According to a write-up of the findings, "The physicians averaged 7 percent lower scores for their nonverbal interactions with the black patients than with the white patients."

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