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Race, Ethnicity and Patient Engagement

flying cadeuciiA few years ago, I was upgraded to First Class on a flight from California back to Chicago. Not long after I settled in, a tall, muscular man easily four inches taller than me walked up to my aisle seat in the first row and prepared to sit by the window.

I envisioned him spending hours hemmed in by the bulkhead and offered to switch places. We began to talk, and soon he shared that his seatmates often hesitate to engage him in conversation. Women and even some men will turn or stiffen in their seats in order to send a clear body-language message.

That’s what happens when you’re a large, physically imposing black guy. People make assumptions. When it comes to patient engagement, we often make assumptions, too.

We minimize the influence of race, gender and ethnicity, or we confuse it with socio-economic status. We assume that “people like us” have communication preferences like us. We downplay the doctor-patient relationship and overemphasize technology.

Race and Ethnicity Matter

In truth, race and ethnicity matter as much in medicine as in the rest of the society. For example, whites, African-Americans and Latinos share the same expectations of their physicians, a study in Health Services Research found, but “patients from different racial and ethnic groups report differing experiences…when using well-validated measurement tools.” Translation: the perception reflects reality.

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