Letters to the Editor

Race-Based Treatment Decisions Perpetuate Structural Racism


Am Fam Physician. 2020 Aug 1;102(3):136-137.

Original Article: Managing Hypertension Using Combination Therapy

Issue Date: March 15, 2020

Available at: https://www.aafp.org/afp/2020/0315/p341.html

To the Editor: American Family Physician (AFP) is an excellent source of evidence-based updates and review articles, so we were surprised and extremely disappointed with the article on hypertension by Drs. Smith, Lennon, and Carlsgaard. The authors advocated for the use of race in guiding the selection of antihypertensive medications without acknowledging that race is socially constructed. This perpetuates the myth that people of different races are inherently biologically different and warrant different treatment regimens.

Race is a sociopolitical construct that does not represent shared genetic ancestry. It is a way of categorizing people based on physical characteristics and assumed geographic ancestry, but racial categories are defined differently across societies and have changed over time.1 Politics and power guided the formation of race as a concept, not scientific certainty; as such, using race as a biological category to determine medical treatment is bad science. We recognize that the Eighth Joint National Committee (JNC-8) guidelines differentiate treatments by race, but we assert that the primary literature for these recommendations does not support this practice. In this case, race was not well defined in the study itself, and the reported difference in outcomes was not statistically significant.2 The study authors did not discuss how they determined which participants were Black: Was race self-reported or researcher observed? How Black must a patient be to not be a candidate for angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor therapy, and who decides?

We feel that this was a missed opportunity for AFP to raise awareness about the insidious way in which outdated assumptions about the biological basis of race permeate current medical practice. Race-based medicine is not benign; it perpetuates structural racism, thereby leading to inequalities in treatment and outcomes. Research has shown that the mere mention of the racial prevalence of genetic diseases in scientific textbooks is associated with the belief that race influences intelligence,3,4 which raises concerns about the implications of race-based medicine. A 2016 study showed that medical students and residents who believed that Black and White people are biologically different rated the pain experienced by Black patients as lower than that experienced by White patients, and they recommended inappropriate treatments.5 The premise of basing treatment decisions on presumed biological differences in race, an ill-defined fluid concept, is flawed at best and directly harmful at worst. With AFP's commitment to evidence-based medicine, we expect better.

Editor's Note: This letter was sent to the authors of “Managing Hypertension Using Combination Therapy,” who declined to reply.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliations.


show all references

1. American Association of Physical Anthropologists. AAPA statement on race and racism. March 2019. Accessed March 31, 2020. https://physanth.org/about/position-statements/aapa-statement-race-and-racism-2019...

2. ALLHAT Officers and Coordinators for the ALLHAT Collaborative Research Group. Major outcomes in high-risk hypertensive patients randomized to angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor or calcium channel blocker vs diuretic: the Antihypertensive and Lipid-Lowering Treatment to Prevent Heart Attack Trial (ALLHAT) [published corrections appear in JAMA. 2003;289(2):178 and JAMA. 2004;291(18):2196]. JAMA. 2002;288(23):2981–2997

3. Graves JL Jr. Human genetic variation and education: not a socially neutral endeavor. Session presented at: American Association of the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting; February 14–17, 2019; Washington DC Accessed April 15, 2020. https://aaas.confex.com/aaas/2019/meetingapp.cgi/Session/21348

4. Donovan BM, Semmens R, Keck P, et al. Toward a more humane genetics education: learning about the social and quantitative complexities of human genetic variation research could reduce racial bias in adolescent and adult populations. Sci Education. 2019;103(3):529–560

5. Hoffman KM, Trawalter S, Axt JR, et al. Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between Blacks and Whites. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016;113(16):4296–4301

In Reply: We agree with Drs. Westby, Okah, and Ricco that race is a sociopolitical construct rather than a true biological category. Unfortunately, the literature contains many examples of the uncritical use of Black race in clinical decision-making, including first-line antihypertensive medication in JNC-8, calculating 10-year cardiovascular risk using the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association pooled cohort risk equations,1 equations for estimating glomerular filtration rate,2 and a U.S. Food and Drug Administration–approved medication for heart failure,3 among others. Indeed, another reader pointed out that an article on office spirometry that also appeared in the March 15, 2020, issue mentioned differences in lung volumes based on age, sex, and ethnicity,4 which refers to the longstanding practice of “race correction” in commercially available spirometers.5

Although many medical schools—including our own, Georgetown University—now teach students about the historical, social, and structural determinants of health disparities that affect persons of color,6 this essential context is stripped away in clinical practice guidelines that require clinicians to base decisions on a patient's self-identified race or to assume race based on physical appearance. Given that journal editors cannot simply rewrite guidelines, what is the way forward? We can strongly encourage guideline authors to justify differential treatment of patients by race, perhaps with reference to one proposed standard: “Using race to guide clinical care is justified only if (1) the use confers substantial benefit; (2) the benefit cannot be achieved through other feasible approaches; (3) patients who reject race categorization are accommodated fairly; and (4) the use of race is transparent.”2 We will also ask AFP editors and authors to critically assess the quality of evidence and unwritten assumptions underlying recommendations regarding the use of race in decision-making. Ultimately, we need research that explores the complexities of health disparities and their effects on clinical outcomes so that we can encourage our authors to include these types of studies in their qualitative reviews of the literature.


show all references

1. Goff DC, Lloyd-Jones DM. The Pooled Cohort risk equations – Black risk matters. JAMA Cardiol. 2016;1(1):12–14....

2. Eneanya ND, Yang W, Reese PP. Reconsidering the consequences of using race to estimate kidney function. JAMA. 2019;322(2):113–114.

3. Bibbins-Domingo K, Fernandez A. BiDil for heart failure in Black patients: implications of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval [published correction appears in Ann Intern Med. 2007;146(8):616]. Ann Intern Med. 2007;146(1):52–56.

4. Langan RC, Goodbred AJ. Office spirometry: indications and interpretation. Am Fam Physician. 2020;101(6):362–368. Accessed May 14, 2020. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2020/0315/p362.html

5. Braun L. Race, ethnicity and lung function: a brief history. Can J Respir Ther. 2015;51(4):99–101.

6. Braun L, Saunders B. Avoiding racial essentialism in medical science curricula. AMA J Ethics. 2017;19(6):518–527.

Send letters to afplet@aafp.org, or 11400 Tomahawk Creek Pkwy., Leawood, KS 66211-2680. Include your complete address, e-mail address, and telephone number. Letters should be fewer than 400 words and limited to six references, one table or figure, and three authors.

Letters submitted for publication in AFP must not be submitted to any other publication. Possible conflicts of interest must be disclosed at time of submission. Submission of a letter will be construed as granting the AAFP permission to publish the letter in any of its publications in any form. The editors may edit letters to meet style and space requirements.

This series is coordinated by Kenny Lin, MD, MPH, Associate Deputy Editor for AFP Online.



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