Resident: Hey, I diagnosed a black child with thalassemia today

Attending: Oh, really

Resident: Yeah, the funny thing is it was picked up on the newborn screen. Child and parents are obviously of African-American decent. They are not aware of any Mediterranean ancestry.

Attending: And that’s why we shouldn’t take race too seriously when screening folks for disease.

Medical learners are taught from an early age to speak clinically in a very distinct language. We call the method of communication regarding patients a “presentation” and typically the pattern is age, race, sex presented with symptom constellation. The story then goes on to recount pertinent positive and negative information, past medical history, family history, social history, physical findings, and ends with the clinician identifying the diagnosis and plan. A lot of information is distilled to keep these presentations concise. The shorthand starts with the age (if the complaint is chest pain, heart attacks don’t occur in 14 year olds, for example) and sex is an important component (a man with “blood on underwear” has fewer moving parts “down there”). Race has always been included in the construct. What goes with race?

Unlike veterinarians, we physicians only have to deal with one species. I have to admit, I almost always assume the entitiy being presented by the learner is human. Having said that, within the homo sapien species there is a lot of genetic variation. If I know something about their family (the patient’s mother and father both have sickle cell trait) then I can draw a conclusion about the patient (this person has a 1 in 4 chance of having sickle cell disease). Otherwise, unrelated people have 3,000,000 distinct variations and people of the same “race” differ by as much as 85% from each other. What of the other 15%? Turns out less than half of it can be traced to similarities in skin color, hair form, and nose shape. In other words, what we see as commonalities that track together (skin, hair, and nose) are for the most part the only things that track together. Diseases tend not to cluster based on these, even less so given our current patterns of population movement. Biologists abandoned the construct of “race” for plants and animals a long time ago, because of a lack of utility. The concept of different races, itself, dates from the fifteenth century when, in response to the Catholic church‘s new “anti-enslavement of humans position,” King Alphonse of Portugal sent ships into Africa and found folks who spoke no European or Arabic tongue and had different skin, hair, and noses, so were obviously NOT human and therefore enslaveable in the eyes of the church.

The  problem with using (skin, hair, nose) to categorize people medically is that it misleads. A tragic example of this occurred in the south. Several physicians, including John Searcy of Mount Vernon Hospital in Alabama, noticed a cluster of folks with a distinctive skin rash beginning in 1906. Now known as pellagra and due to a deficiency of nicotinic acid in the corn-based diets of poor people (a byproduct of the introduction of modern agricultural methods to corn harvest), it was proven to be a consequence of poverty and inadequate nutrition by 1912. However, despite the elegant proof, the deaths continued because of the insistence of leaders in the field that it was clearly an inherited condition because it tended to run in poor black families. Coincidentally, so did poverty.

By continuing to include race on the front end we perpetuate the myth of causation instead of using it to identify groups that need special attention. Per the new England Journal:

It is indisputable that social perceptions of what a person is or is not influence the availability, delivery, and outcome of medical care. It is incontrovertible that these perceptions apply with dismaying regularity to black people and other minorities in the United States. And it is undeniable that lifestyle, socioeconomic status, and personal beliefs are powerful influences on health. But these are matters of morality and culture, and we must clearly distinguish them from the biologic aspects of race-based medicine — from the danger of attributing a therapeutic failure to the patient’s “race” instead of looking for the real reason.

When this article was written in 2001, there were 1300 articles published containing the search terms “Negroid race” in the previous two years. In what is clearly an improvement, there have only been 700 articles in the last two years,

What we know is that (skin, hair, and nose) is at best an incomplete marker for geographic genetic origin, which might be a useful clue for certain diseases. In this country, we know that it is a marker for poverty and oppression, which does seem to be correlated with disease. Instead of Black, White, Hispanic, maybe I’ll make the learner say something to the effect of “This 52 year old ‘manual laborer who lives in a bad neighborhood among drug dealers and has to sleep in his bath tub for fear of being shot accidentally’ female comes in for high blood pressure and headaches.” Too long?