A new study conducted by UCLA establishes that attitudes related to medical racism can be countered by critical education. In the study, entitled You can’t dismantle what you don’t recognize: The effect of learning critical Black history in healthcare on perspective-taking, groups of white people were exposed to different history lessons about Black people.

As Medical Economics reported, the study discovered that the group exposed to a critical reading of the history of Black people’s experiences in the medical field made them more likely to point out racist treatment when they saw it. This occurred regardless of whether or not  they were asked to imagine themselves in the shoes of Black people experiencing that discriminatory treatment. In the critical Black history group, one of the experiences highlighted was that of Civil Rights Movement activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer was only supposed to get a tumor removed during her procedure, but instead, a doctor removed her uterus without consent. The practice of unconsented hysterectomies, or forced sterilization, was performed disproportionately on Black women during that time period. 

In the second group, participants were shown images of celebratory Black history, with a focus on achievements in the medical field, such as Dr. Patricia Bath, who pioneered laser cataract surgery. The third group, the study’s control group, was shown images of Black people from the 1800s on up to the present day with no historical context.

Following the history lessons, researchers asked participants about their level of support for policies that would have the effect of reducing racism and health discrimination in the American healthcare system. What they discovered was that in the case of the first two groups, they were much more likely to support progressive healthcare policies, and they were also more readily able to recognize that individual and systemic racism exists in the medical field.

Kerri Johnson, a professor of social psychology and communication at UCLA and the study’s senior author, discussed what those findings implied.

“The findings have far-reaching impacts toward creating an anti-racist society and a health care system that treats patients more equitably,” Johnson pointed out.

Her research partner, Dr. Kimberly Martin, now a postdoctoral scholar at Yale, said that the focus of their work is about creating ways to fight the prevalence of medical racism.

“There is overwhelming evidence of the existence of racism in health care and the persistence of stereotypes, but with our work, we aim to demonstrate that there could be ways to intervene, reduce discrimination,  create more equitable health care outcomes,” Martin explained.

Though the participants were more able to point out instances of racism in the healthcare field and advocate for more equitable policies in healthcare, according to the findings, they could not escape a racist attitude themselves. The participants still erroneously believed that Black people have a higher threshold for pain regardless of which history lesson they received. Despite this, Martin remains hopeful that a more accurate account of the historical context regarding Black people and the medical field will help create a more equitable and just society.

“Efforts to silence stories of oppression,” Martin said, “rob people of the opportunity to gain insights and perspective, particularly about oppressed people. Our evidence suggests that with the study of an accurate history of injustice comes increased perspective-taking and broader support for a more equitable, just society.”

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