Medical competence has nothing to do with gender or skin color? Your body might have a different opinion. A study on the placebo effect shows how prejudice affects the healing process.

When the lungs rattle or the appendix pinches, a medicus is needed, a white coat, a healer. There are many names for doctors. What they have in common is that they have learned over years of study to alleviate health problems, or at best to eliminate them. Who puts on the stethoscope, whether a woman or a man is in the doctor’s coat should make no difference. The skin color anyway. But does that also correspond to reality? As a study has now found, white patients apparently still primarily trust the medical competence of one group of people: that of white men. And that can have negative health effects. The study results have now been published in the journal “PNAS”.187 people took part in the small study, which was carried out by a research team led by Lauren C. Howe from the University of Zurich in the USA. They were all white. The aim of the study was to find out whether the skin color and gender of the treating person has an influence on the healing process of the patient. These were randomly assigned to a male or female practitioner who was Asian-looking, black, or white. The examination was disguised as an allergy test. Therefore, an allergic reaction was initially triggered in the subjects, which was then treated with a cream. This was a placebo, which the patients did not know. The results speak for themselves.

Trust important for placebo effect

Not only was the placebo effect less in the study participants who had been treated by women, their allergic reaction was also stronger than in those who had been treated by men. The study results suggest that the doctor’s skin color also has a negative effect on the placebo effect. If the treating men were black, the patients reacted more strongly to the skin prick allergy test and the effect of the cream was less than in white or Asian-looking treating men. But why? Whether the placebo effect takes effect or not also depends on whether the patients believe that the treatment will alleviate their symptoms. Trust plays a big role in this. Trust in a supposed drug, but also trust in the person who prescribed it. Therein lies the crux of the matter. Many people still associate the image of the so-called demigod in white, whether consciously or unconsciously, not just with a man in a white coat, but with a white man in a white coat. The study shows how strongly these learned associations and associated prejudices are still anchored in society. In this case: the American population. The study does not reveal whether the results would be similar in Germany, Vietnam or Ghana. It is also important to remember that this is a small investigation.

“If a doctor doesn’t look like someone who has had that role for most of history — that is, isn’t a white male — patients might be less responsive to treatment,” Howe summarizes. In other words, prejudice, whether conscious or not, can be detrimental to the healing process. However, Howe also reports, “Interestingly, the patients had no explicit prejudice against women or black medical professionals.” Rather, the participants tried to be impartial. More than 1,000 people, who were then shown short videos of the treatments, confirmed that these were more than just empty words. They came to the conclusion that the patients were even more approachable, seemed more polite and interested when they were treated by a woman or a black doctor.

What: PNAS