Non-Verbal Indicators of Discomfort

In many ways, the United States has been inching closer and closer to racial equality. But the progress hasn’t been perfect, and true equality may never be achieved (I hope this is not the case). Despite all of the regulations and legalities, there are deeper social dynamics that make it difficult to break down all barriers. For example, it is difficult for many people to feel completely comfortable around different races. And this is evident in doctor-patient communication.

In a study published in December 2011 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine (JGIM), researchers from the University of South Carolina determined that non-verbal communication during medical visits varied with the race and age of physicians and patients. Compared to white physicians, black physicians tended to use more positive non-verbal communication with their patients in general. But black physicians’ non-verbal communication with black patients was also more noticeably positive than their non-verbal communication with white patients.

Irena Stepanikova, lead researcher, found that black physicians smiled, touched, and used open body position more with black patients. With white patients, although they had a high use of smile and gaze, their body position was less open. Stepanikova believed this could indicate social unease, similar to that between many female doctors and male patients. She further suggested that this unease may reflect the professional challenges that black physicians face in the workplace, which include discrimination, bias, and questioning of their authority.

The patients in this particular study were all aged 65 and older, so this is not necessarily indicative of interaction between black physicians and younger patients. But it does demonstrate that institutional changes do not always promote social changes. Even half a century after the Civil Rights Movement, diverse populations still sometimes need help easing racial tensions, and connecting with each other on a deeper level. For more information on this study, you can refer to the PR Newswire piece on it or to the abstract posted on SpringerLink.

Speaking that Connects