A group of researchers set out to explore why Black men have the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group in the United States. Their work reveals just how important race is when it comes to who provides medical care.
Just 4 percent of the doctors in the United States are Black, despite African Americans making up 13 percent of the overall population. And it is this disparity that study authors say is partially to blame for the premature death of Black men. Per The New York Times: “In the study, Black men seeing Black male doctors were much more likely to agree to certain preventive measures than were Black men seeing doctors who were White or Asian.”
The study, “Does Diversity Matter for Health? Experimental Evidence from Oakland,” was published in June by the National Bureau for Economic Research. In it, 702 Black men in Oakland were recruited from barbershops and a flea market to visit a clinic for a free health screening. The 14 doctors at the clinic offered flu shots and preventative measures, including screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes. Each man was assigned to a doctor who was either another Black male, White or Asian. Per The Times:
Neither the men nor the doctors knew that the purpose of the study was to ask if a doctor’s race mattered when he or she advised these patients. As it turned out, the racial effects were not subtle.
Diabetes screening was part of the health check, and 63 percent of the Black men assigned to a Black doctor agreed to the screening. But just 43 percent of those assigned to a doctor who was White or Asian consented to be screened.
Some 62 percent of Black men with a Black doctor agreed to cholesterol tests, compared to 36 percent assigned to a doctor who was not Black.
Not only did researchers examine who accepted preventative measures, but they also looked at the feedback given by doctors and patients. These were also different based on the race of the doctor. White and Asian doctors tended to make notes that were medical, such as “anxiety” or “weight loss.” And in response, the patients who saw them commented that they received good medical care (for example, one wrote, “It was a great and fast experience, doctor was great as well.”).
Black doctors’ notes were more inclusive, commenting on lifestyle and health. Examples included: “needs food, shelter, clothing, job, ‘flu shot makes you sick,’ he got one,” and “subject yelled at me, but then agreed to get flu shot because I recommended it.”
Not surprisingly, patients who saw Black doctors also gave what The Times described as more “emotional responses,” including, “the entire day made me feel very comfortable and relaxed” and “cool doctor.”
“I don’t think I have ever had such a strong result, so unambiguous,” Dr. Marcella Alsan, a professor of medicine at Stanford University and an author of the study, told The Times.
The researchers concluded that the gap in cardiovascular mortality between Black men and the rest of the U.S. population could be reduced by up to 20 percent if more Black men could see their peers for medical care.