Return of the unconscious: Racial disparities in pain treatment

We all are aware that inadequate pain care can have devastating effects on patient’s health and mortality rates. But do you know that black women are four to five times more likely to suffer a pregnancy-related death than their white counterparts?


According to recent statistics, three to four factors play a role in maternal mortality, pain care being one of them (Petersen et al.,2019).

Previous research shows that specifically the patient’s race, unequally influences pain assessment and treatment decisions. Therefore, it is not surprising to hear that providers assess and treat pain differently based on the patient’s race (Hirsh et al., 2009).

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To investigate, if attention mediates the relationship between racial biases and helping behaviour and pain estimation, we recruited a sample of 63 that mainly consists of a dutch university student population. A visual search task, vignettes to measure helping behaviour and pain estimation, and an implicit association task were employed to analyze the  components possibly related to racial differences in pain care.

To play devil’s advocate, let’s see if our white fellow students act on their racial prejudices when another fellow human would be in pain. Will we find support for our hypothesis that racial biases and attention to pain negatively influence pain estimation and helping behaviour? Or will our sample surprise us by showing barely any racial differences in their pain assessment and helpfulness?

RP 2021 Group 48 Aylin E., Nina C., Pia B.


Hirsh, A. T., George, S. Z., & Robinson, M. E. (2009, May). Pain assessment and treatment disparities: a virtual human technology investigation. Pain, 143(1-2), 106-113.

Petersen EE, Davis NL, Goodman D, et al. Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Pregnancy-Related Deaths — United States, 2007–2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2019;68:762–765.

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