In the last year, we have seen the devastating effects of racial stereotyping. The number of unarmed black men who have been killed by police officers is astonishing. And regardless of the reasons offered by police, the victims all had one thing in common. Not only were they black but because of their race, they were racially profiled.
While it is bad enough being wrongly singled out as a violent criminal by those sworn to protect you, it is equally dangerous being stereotyped by a highly respectable professional whose job is to help save your life—your very own doctor.
Recently, a national study led by a USC researcher found people who encountered the threat of being judged by negative stereotypes related to weight, age, race, gender, or social class in health care settings reported experiencing adverse health effects.
The researchers found those people were more likely to have hypertension, to be depressed, and to rate their own health more poorly. They were also more distrustful of their doctors, felt dissatisfied with their care, and were less likely to use highly accessible preventive care, such as the flu vaccine.
Although it is not usually expressed, "health care stereotype threat" poses a real problem for people of color. It stems from the flawed perception that minority patients make unhealthy lifestyle choices and are intellectually inferior.
For African Americans with advanced diabetes, for example, doctors are more likely to recommend amputation rather than try and save limbs through diet and medicine. The underlying belief about many African American patients is that they do not have the discipline to stick to diet regimes. So, for the doctor, cutting off a leg is easier.
And because African Americans have significantly higher rates of disease across the board, even health awareness campaigns can backfire. In an attempt to pinpoint the prevalence of various diseases, disproportionately high levels of illness become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, what can be done to combat stereotypes and improve the outcome of health care?
It is critical that more of us learn to communicate better with our doctors. Doctors are not perfect, they make mistakes and are often overworked. Although most are well meaning, stereotyping is a convenient way for them to try and pinpoint your problem. But everyone is an individual and we must insist that we be given personalized care.
Before your next doctor’s appointment, give some thought to the visit. Take time to write down your symptoms. Make sure you understand what medicines you are taking, why you need them and whether there might be an adverse reaction to them.
If you come prepared with questions, you will not be written off so easily. Your doctor will respect you and you will be seen as more than just another patient. This shows that you have a vested interest in your health and are not just going to mindlessly go along with whatever the doctor tells you. You may not have studied medicine, but you are a unique person who deserves personalized health care and attention.