Examining the influence of Hispanic ethnicity and ethnic bias on medical students' pain decisions

Nicole A Hollingshead, Purdue University


Hispanic patients receive disparate pain care compared to non-Hispanic White (NHW) patients. Healthcare providers’ ethnic bias may be one reason for pain disparities. This investigation sought to determine the influence of Hispanic ethnicity and ethnic bias on chronic pain management decisions. During an online experiment, 97 medical students made pain assessment and opioid treatment decisions for Hispanic and NHW virtual human patients with chronic pain. They also completed explicit and implicit measures of ethnic bias. Individual-level analyses found that 31% and 36% of participants demonstrated large effect sizes (dz≥.50), indicating that patient ethnicity strongly influenced their pain assessment and opioid treatment decisions, respectively. At the group level of analysis, participants’ decisions did not differ significantly between NHW and Hispanic patients (all p values >.05). Participants did not report significant explicit ethnic bias (t[96]=1.88, p=.06; dz=.19; Hispanic mean rating=77.6 [SD=18.7]; NHW mean rating=75.2 [SD=19.4]) but demonstrated a small-to-moderate implicit preference for NHWs relative to Hispanics (Mean=.31 [SD=.41]). Patient ethnicity and implicit ethnic bias had an interactive effect on opioid treatment decisions (F[1, 95]=5.15, p<.05, ηG2=.02); however, the direction of the effect was not as hypothesized. Participants with higher implicit ethnic bias gave significantly higher opioid ratings to Hispanics relative to NHWs (p=.05), whereas participants with lower bias gave marginally higher opioid ratings to NHWs relative to Hispanics (p=.20). Participants with higher vs. lower implicit ethnic bias differed only in their treatment ratings for NHW patients, such that participants with lower bias gave significantly higher opioid ratings to NHW patients than did participants with higher bias (p<.05). This investigation found that approximately one-third of participants made significantly different chronic pain management decisions for Hispanic vs. NHW patients. Participants’ implicit ethnic bias interacted with their opioid treatment decisions but not as expected. Future investigations should measure healthcare providers’ stereotypes about Hispanic patients with pain as this may better predict their pain decisions.




Hirsh, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Social psychology|Medicine|Psychology|Hispanic American studies

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