Should people’s ethnicity matter in their medical treatment?

Should people’s ethnicity matter in their medical treatment?

Southern California Public Radio

José Martinez

Chances are, medical research has found that your ethnicity makes you more likely to have certain conditions or diseases.

For Latinos, it’s diabetes. For black folks, it’s high blood pressure. For white people, it’s cystic fibrosis. For Asian women, it’s osteoporosis.

But one scholar says race-based medical recommendations to patients potentially mislead them about their health risks – and reinforce harmful notions about race at the same time.

That scholar is Sean Valles, an assistant professor of philosophy at Michigan State University in a new paper appearing in Preventive Medicine.

In his paper, Valles agrees that some racial groups are, on average, more prone to certain diseases and conditions than other ethnic groups. But, he says, within each ethnic group are what he calls “islands” of lower risk that shouldn’t go unacknowledged.

He gave a couple of examples. The government recommends that black people eat less salt than other ethnic groups, due to their predisposition for high blood pressure. But Valles notes that foreign-born black people tend to have different lifestyles, and as such have substantially lower rates of heart disease, for which high blood pressure is a risk factor…

…It can be tempting, though, for medical professionals to use any information they have to get an edge on their patients’ ailments. But still, said Dr. Felix Aguilar, the chief medical officer at South Central Family Health Center, “we have to be careful when we use race.”

Aguilar said oftentimes, when people point to ethnicity as a factor in medicine, they’re often conflating it with socioeconomic status.

“Yes, there definitely are genetics involved in a lot of these procedures, but that’s not the whole story,” he said, adding that health providers should ask themselves: “Are we using [ethnicity] for the genetic aspects or are we using it for the socioeconomic aspects?”

If the answer is the latter, said Aguilar, then ethnicity probably doesn’t need to be part of the discussion.

“Our position in society many times tells us how long we’re going to live, how healthy we’re going to be and whether we have access to clean water, clean air and good food,” he said.

“Why do Latina women have the highest rate of cervical cancer in the U.S.?” Aguilar continued. “You can say, ‘Alright, it’s genetic.’ And maybe there’s a genetic element. But most likely it’s access to care.“…

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