Training doctors to spot their own racial biases

Treatment disparities among white, black and Latino patients haven't changed much in 50 years.

Story highlights

  • Treatment disparities among white, black and Latino patients haven't changed over decades
  • African-American patients are often prescribed less pain medication than white patients

Jane Lazarre was pacing the hospital waiting room. Her son Khary, 18, had just had knee surgery, but the nurses weren't letting her in to see him.

"They told us he would be out of anesthesia in a few minutes," she remembered. "The minutes became an hour, the hour became two hours."
    She and her husband called the surgeon in a panic. He said that Khary had come out of anesthesia violently — thrashing and flailing about. He told Lazarre that with most young people Khary's age, there wouldn't have been a problem. The doctors and nurses would have gently held him down.
    "But with our son, since he was so 'large and powerful,' they were worried he might injure the medical staff," Lazarre said. "So they had to keep sending him back under the anesthesia."
    Khary was 6 feet tall. But he was slim.
    "He wasn't the giant they were describing him as," Lazarre said.
    Lazarre is white. Her husband is black. Lazarre says there's no doubt in her mind that the medical team's fear of Khary was because of race.
    "I understood, certainly not for the first time, that my son — and my sons both — were viewed as being dangerous, being potentially frightening to people who were white," she said.
    She's also sure the surgeon didn't see it that way.
    "Like most white people, I don't think he was conscious of it at all," Lazarre said.
    She and her husband insisted on seeing Khary. They saw right away that he wasn't angry or violent.
    "He was scared," Lazarre said. She and her husband leaned over and whispered in Khary's ear: "'It's going to be OK, you can calm down.' And he began coming out of the anesthesia more normally."
    Lazarre first wrote about this experience in her book "Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons." Though it's been years since Khary's surgery, Lazarre says there's still so much that hasn't changed.

    Racial disparity in medical treatment pers