Racial Bias in Intensive Care Units

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Researchers from Cleveland's Metro Health medical center report that more than half of critically-ill patients or their families never have detailed conversations with their doctors about treatment or the chances they'll return to good health. And if the patient was African American, those conversations were even less likely. Dr. Daryl Thornton led the study.

THORNTON: 55 percent of all the patients in the study did not have a discussion of prognoses with their physician And that changed quite a bit by race, with 58 percent of white patients having had a discussion and only 43 percent of African American patients.

Furthermore, when the doctors in the study did talk to patients, they reported feeling less comfortable having those conversations if their patients were African American. More than 90 percent of the doctors were white, and Thornton suggests that cultural differences between the way Caucasian and African American's handle end of life decisions may offer some explanation. African American families are less apt to withdraw life support, he says, making it harder for physicians to confront families with difficult news.

THORNTON: It may have been that the physicians felt that life support probably should have been withdrawn and they felt a little bit uncomfortable broaching that topic knowing that the patients and their families would refuse that.

Thornton proposes that this data, along with audio recordings of real-life doctor patient conversations be used to train physicians in the hopes of eliminating future racial bias. Gretchen Cuda, 90.3.

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