Study finds ‘striking’ difference in Black newborn deaths based on doctor’s race

Research has shown that Black newborns are more than twice as likely to die than white newborns, but a new study finds outcomes can vary greatly depending on the race of their pediatricians.

“What’s quite striking is that when Black newborns are treated by Black physicians, by Black pediatricians, that [death rate] is cut in half,” said Brad Greenwood, a George Mason University associate professor and one of the study’s co-authors.

The study also found that a doctor’s race had no effect on the mortality rates of white newborns.

“That’s relatively striking,” Greenwood said.

The study findings are based on 1.8 million hospital births in Florida between 1992 and 2015.

Greenwood said that there are many potential contributing factors to the trend, and he cautioned against assuming that the findings in any way demonize physicians.

“The goal here is to point out a systemic inequality, which is happening, to try to figure it out,” he said. “Getting at the underlying reasons is what’s really important here.”

Among many potential factors, Black newborns might be more medically challenging to treat “due to a host of social risk factors and cumulative racial and socio-economic disadvantages that their mothers might be facing,” Greenwood said. “So, it might be that Black physicians are more aware and attuned of these differences and can act on them more quickly.”

There is also evidence that “racial concordance” (having a shared identity with your doctor) increases trust and communication and a mom’s willingness to share her concerns.

“While we observe this relatively robust difference, speculating as to exactly why — we can’t do. It’s likely a mix of many, many things,” Greenwood said. “What we want to make sure happens is that we are getting into hospitals and figuring out why it’s happening and, at the same time, address some of the systemic inequalities that exist in the medical system.”

He added, “I think this really calls for additional work to get into locations which are high performing and locations which are lower performing to figure out exactly why this is going on.”

Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population, but only 5% of physicians.

The study was published Aug. 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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