Study Shows Unconscious Racial Bias May Impact Emergency Medical Responders Decisions

A recent study conducted in Oregon has shown that emergency medical responders may be biased against minority patients.

It’s the concept of unconscious bias. Discrimination is illegal, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t unconsciously discriminate against groups of individuals without even knowing they’re doing it. And just because we don’t think we’re doing it doesn’t mean it’s not wrong or shouldn’t be corrected. It can still have detrimental consequences.

Reports show that unconscious bias may be one of the causes of health disparities linked to race in the United States.

It’s well-known that disparities exist in the medical field. But until this study, they weren’t examined within medical transport specifically, leaving a gap in the research.

The Study

This study examined Emergency Medical Services (EMS), EMTs, and paramedics in Portland, Oregon.

It was led by the head of emergency medical services programs at Oregon Health and Science University, Jamie Kennel.

Jamie and his team investigated 104,000 medical charts belonging to patients who had traveled by ambulance between the years of 2015 and 2017. This information was received from the American Medical Response (AMR) in Portland, Oregon. Researchers found that regardless of socioeconomic factors, minority patients were far less likely to be given pain medications such as morphine.

This study ultimately indicated that black patients were 40% less likely to receive pain medication than white patients.

You can read the full report from their study here.

The cause of this issue

It is well understood that African-Americans are affected by different conditions in different ways. However, there is a difference between physiological differences and mistreatment.

A study which surveyed a group of medical students at the University of Virginia asked students if they believed African-Americans have fewer pain receptors than white individuals. Half of these students agreed.

As much as we may want to believe that we have moved on from a time of oppression and discrimination toward racial minorities that is unfortunately not the case. Especially during of medical emergencies, when first responders are forced to act quickly, they can easily and unconsciously resort to acting on embedded stereotypes.

What can be done?

Now that AMR knows about the issue in their region, they plan to implement education and training for their first responders. Additionally, they say they want to hire more racial minorities.

Historically, EMS has been composed of white males, and that composition hasn’t changed much in the present day. As part of this effort, AMR is also working to create a new outreach program which will include going out into the community, specifically communities of color, to explain the role of EMS workers. 

Lastly, AMR is determined to change policies which may be discriminatory in nature and replace them with features which may improve outcomes for minorities. For instance, they have recently bought a software which will allow medical permission forms to be translated into 17 different languages. 

You can read more about Jamie Kennel’s study and more perspectives on this issue here.


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