Doctors’ prejudices can hurt — and possibly kill — patients

It’s widely recognized that there are serious discrepancies in the availability and level of medical care based on economic factors as well as racial ones. There are other disparities based on deeply ingrained and often unconscious biases among doctors and the medical community overall.

How biases affect patients with disabilities

People with disabilities can face limitations in even getting access to health care. Although wheelchair accessibility to most buildings is required by law, one study found that 20% of medical offices said they couldn’t accommodate patients who use them.

Doctors sometimes make misdiagnoses in people with disabilities that they likely wouldn’t make in “able-bodied” people. In the Netflix documentary Crip Camp, a woman with cerebral palsy says that when she was young, a doctor misdiagnosed her pelvic pain and removed what turned out to be a healthy appendix. She was actually suffering from a sexually transmitted disease and displaying common symptoms of it. She said, “They just couldn’t believe someone like me would be sexually active.”

Biases based on race can be harmful

Most doctors would insist that they don’t harbor prejudices against people of other races. However, studies show otherwise. One study of over 200 medical students and residents found that approximately half of them had false beliefs about biological differences between white and black people.

This can lead to inadequate and possibly harmful treatment. For example, doctors who believe in false differences have been found to fail to provide adequate pain relief for their black patients.

False beliefs about female patients can prove fatal

Female patients can also suffer from unconscious bias. Gender biases include women’s supposedly greater ability to withstand pain than men. Women’s symptoms are also more often written off as psychosomatic.

The fact that women sometimes present with different symptoms than men experiencing the same medical issue – like a heart attack – can lead to fatal misdiagnoses.

Doctors, like all people, have biases based on their own experience and/or beliefs. What’s important to know is that these biases can – and sometimes do –harm their patients.

While you may not be able to prove that a doctor or other health care provider discriminated against you, you may well be able to prove that they failed to provide a reasonable standard of care and that you suffered harm as a result. An experienced medical malpractice attorney at Janicek Law can help.


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