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The role of non-verbal behaviour in racial disparities in health care: implications and solutions.

Medical Education 2013 September
CONTEXT: People from racial minority backgrounds report less trust in their doctors and have poorer health outcomes. Although these deficiencies have multiple roots, one important set of explanations involves racial bias, which may be non-conscious, on the part of providers, and minority patients' fears that they will be treated in a biased way. Here, we focus on one mechanism by which this bias may be communicated and reinforced: namely, non-verbal behaviour in the doctor-patient interaction.

METHODS: We review 2 lines of research on race and non-verbal behaviour: (i) the ways in which a patient's race can influence a doctor's non-verbal behaviour toward the patient, and (ii) the relative difficulty that doctors can have in accurately understanding the nonverbal communication of non-White patients. Further, we review research on the implications that both lines of work can have for the doctor-patient relationship and the patient's health.

RESULTS: The research we review suggests that White doctors interacting with minority group patients are likely to behave and respond in ways that are associated with worse health outcomes.

DISCUSSION: As doctors' disengaged non-verbal behaviour towards minority group patients and lower ability to read minority group patients' non-verbal behaviours may contribute to racial disparities in patients' satisfaction and health outcomes, solutions that target non-verbal behaviour may be effective. A number of strategies for such targeting are discussed.

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