Feeling unwell, being sick, and having to seek medical help is a universal experience. Yet research confirms that there is inherent bias against Black people when it comes to healthcare. If you’re suffering from chronic pain, the combination of your physical discomfort and the stress, frustration, and powerlessness of not being taken seriously by your medical provider can be overwhelming. In this article, we consider five things you can do to advocate for yourself as a Black patient experiencing chronic pain.
A number of studies have been conducted that reveal that medical students and doctors have a different perception of pain levels among Black and white patients. In every case, Black patients were perceived to have less pain than white patients.
In one study, 222 medical students were surveyed. More than half of them indicated that Black people had higher pain thresholds than white people, including having less sensitive nerve endings, stronger immunity, and thicker skin. As a result, it was thought that Black patients required less invasive pain care than white patients.
In the face of such inherent bias, it is vital that Black people with chronic pain learn how to advocate effectively for themselves when they see a medical professional. This can be a daunting prospect, however. It is easy to feel uncomfortable or intimidated in a doctor’s office. However, by preparing for the visit, you can be your own best advocate. Here are five ways to do just that.
How to Describe Pain
Before you visit the doctor, spend some time thinking about how you will describe your pain to them. The more accurately you are able to do so, the better they’ll understand what you are going through. Sit down with a pad and pen and jot down the answers to the following questions:
- How long have you been experiencing the pain?
- Where exactly is the pain?
- Is the pain localized or is it spread over a wide part of your body?
- What rating would you give the pain between 1 and 10 (10 being the most severe)?
- Is the pain worse when you touch the area?
- Is the pain always there or does it come in waves?
- How does the pain affect your daily routine?
- Have you identified any triggers that set off the pain?
Beyond answering the above questions, you should keep a pain diary. Make an entry following every episode of chronic pain. Use adjectives to describe your symptoms as accurately as possible. Here are five adjectives that may be useful:
In the meantime, while you are waiting to meet with your doctor, there may be some things you can try to relieve your pain. For example, if you are experiencing knee pain or neck and back pain, there are definitely some methods you can look into that could help and give some relief.
Be Open About Your Concerns
Without being confrontational, you may wish to raise the issue of unconscious bias with your healthcare provider. Tell them that you have read some studies that show that it is common for doctors to underestimate the pain threshold of Black people and that you really want them to get an accurate picture of your experience.
If you feel that your doctor is not listening to you or is still dismissing or minimizing your pain after you have raised the issue, don’t hesitate to find a different doctor. If you have to, keep going until you find a provider you are comfortable with.
In weighing up whether your doctor is taking your chronic pain seriously, ask yourself the following questions:
- Did your doctor ask probing questions?
- Do you think they took your symptoms seriously?
- Did they make value judgments about you and your condition?
If you feel that you have been prejudicially treated as a result of bias by your doctor, do not hesitate to file a formal complaint with the healthcare provider.
Ask the Doctor Questions About Cultural Awareness
You may feel helpless when you are sitting in your doctor’s office, but you don’t have to. Remember that you are the paying customer in the relationship. That means that the doctor is working for you. You don’t have to feel like a victim, even if you are being victimized.
Ask your doctor some questions about the institution’s cultural awareness, such as:
- Are you familiar with the racial disparities for patients with chronic pain?
- What are some steps you take to reduce the impact of bias when providing care?
- What is your experience working with patients of color?
While planning your visit and thinking through your questions, draw inspiration from Black History month people.
Remember Who the Expert Is
The patient-doctor relationship is undeniably uneven. The doctor, after all, is the expert on health. They have spent many years studying and have lots of practical experience. When it comes to your body, however, it is you who are the expert. You live inside your body and you experience your pain.
Do not let a doctor tell you how you feel or write off your symptoms as nothing to worry about. You also deserve to know about the side effects of the medical treatments the doctor advocates. If you are experiencing bad effects from a course of medical treatment, don’t just put up with it. Contact the doctor and query it. Don’t allow them to fob you off. Be persistent until you get the satisfaction you deserve.
You don’t want to pester your doctor. After all, they are busy professionals with many patients to deal with. However, by standing up for yourself from the start, you can save both of you a lot of time and frustration.
Unconscious bias is a real thing. It affects the way that medical professionals deal with chronic pain in the Black community. As a Black person with chronic pain, however, you do not have to be a helpless victim. If you take the time to accurately describe your symptoms, openly express your concerns to your medical professional, prepare to change doctors if you feel that you are not being listened to, and stand up for yourself, you can confront this unconscious bias and get the help that you deserve.
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