According to a story from WXXI News, a startup from Rochester has set out to solve a dire medical problem that has global impacts on health. The problem at hand is racial bias in medicine. The company plans to develop a VisualDX database of images which will catalog how diseases present themselves differently in people of varying skin tones.
Racism in Medicine
Racial bias in health and medicine is as old, entrenched, and institutional as racism itself. Generally, people of color receive worse medical treatment in comparison to whites. This is both due to the biases and discrimination of caregivers and the manner in which diseases have been studied and diagnosed over the years. Many medical reference books, even fairly recent ones, often take no effort to distinguish differences in how diseases may present depending on race or skin tone. People of color are also less likely to have the resources to get quality care when they need to, but even when differences in access are accounted for, people of color receive less effective treatment. Studies have also found that doctors are less likely to take the symptoms and pain of people of color seriously. Many doctors in the US also have very limited or no experience working with patients that are not white.
Ticks Bite People of Color Too
Take Lyme disease for example. In this rare, tick-borne illness, a characteristic that can be diagnostic in many cases is a distinctive, red, bullseye rash. However, in patients with dark skin, this rash may very well not be visible, or, at the very least, it may look somewhat different— different enough for a skeptical doctor to make a misdiagnosis. Incidentally, images of people of color with Lyme disease have so far proven particularly difficult to track down for the startup; they only have one picture so far.
A Step in The Right Direction
While the database of disease images with different skin tones won’t entirely be able to counteract the implicit bias that may affect the decision making of physicians, once completed it still will give doctors a valuable tool that every well intentioned professional should have at their disposal in order to reduce racial disparities in diagnosis and treatment.