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The Pain Gap: Racism in the Medical World


It’s a well-known fact that racial bias and discrimination are (unfortunately) commonly seen in society. These things can prove to be detrimental if you just so happen to be any skin color except white. So we know that these setbacks exist and that they are bad, but exactly how much harm can they cause a non-white person? Exactly how much pain does racial bias and discrimination inflict on a person? Well, simply put, a lot.

Not too many people are entirely aware of exactly how much damage racism can cause. People take it lightly and even joke about it, until they realize that people are getting killed over it. Even then, some people still aren’t convinced that racism is a legitimate danger to people’s health and well-being. There’s this theory turned truth called “the pain gap” that exemplifies exactly how racism can be harmful to a targeted person.

A study conducted by the University of Virginia provides enough proof that the pain gap is alive and real. The findings from this study are absolutely eye-opening. The study highlighted the systematic significance of “legendary” false beliefs in pain perception and treatment, for example – some people believe that black people have a higher pain tolerance or even have thicker skin than white people. Here’s an excerpt from the study: 

This work provides evidence that false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites continue to shape the way we perceive and treat black people—they are associated with racial disparities in pain assessment and treatment recommendations.”

These things might not seem catastrophic, but when these beliefs are being supported in medical schools and practiced in hospitals – it can become harmful. This is the pain gap and no – white people don’t suffer from it. There are other intersections like poverty, gender, and disability that can come into play, but that could make for a separate article entirely. The pain gap can also feed into the systematic overtreatment of millions of people that directly leads to the abuse and addiction of painkillers while simultaneously millions of others are being severely undertreated and denied the minimum.

Don’t think that it’s just black people who fall victim to the pain gap. A study done in Los Angeles found that patients who were white and being treated for bone fractures were dosed more liberally and accurately than Latino patients with the same injuries. There could be many different explanations for this: racism, language and cultural barriers, and even just misunderstanding the ways other people besides white (because everyone knows society classifies white people as the “norm”) feel and communicate pain. No matter the root cause, this disparity is definitely linked to institutionalized racism in a major way. One way to counteract this is to stop teaching it to medical students and stop enforcing it in hospitals. It could help if we educated physicians on the different aspects of race and their accompanying culture. It could also be beneficial to debunk medical myths about the different races and also eradicate the stigmas surrounding them (for example, myths like black people’s blood coagulates more quickly and all Latinos are addicted to painkillers). These things create obstacles and end up causing the minority patient more pain. To make matters worse, what happens when a nonwhite person gets a doctor who is racist? What then? Probably a lot of discrimination, skepticism, and subpar treatment will take place.

The pain gap is a proven reality and it is harming people every single day. This is something we should bring awareness to and work to bring to an end. Is it really fair to be in more pain just because you aren’t white? No, it is not – even if the pain gap tells you it is.

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Lou Rambeau
Written By

Lou Rambeau is a young writer, photographer, activist, and artist currently located in New Orleans, Louisiana. Contact via email at, Twitter/Instagram @lourambeau, or website

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