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I received an email yesterday from CNN asking me to comment on a study published today in the Journal Cancer titled, “Racial Variation in Willingness to Trade Financial Resources for Life-Prolonging Cancer Treatment.”   This is an interesting study that found that African Americans with cancer are more likely to state a willingness to spend down their financial resources to prolong their life than whites, 80% vs. 54%. 

My first thought was, wow! CNN!  That’s the big time!  I then realized that the reporter was not Wolf Blitzer or at least Sanjay Gupta, but rather a blogger for the CNN health blog “The Chart.”  I did the interview, and the post came out, and I wasn’t quoted 🙁

What interested me most about the post were the comments.  Here are a few examples:

  • What a stupid, dumb and racist article and research.
  • WHO CARES….Study something that actually matters and doesn’t split up the human race based on skin color.

Then there is this comment:

  • As a palliative care doctor, I feel that this is a very important study because it gives those of us who provide medical care to patients at life’s end and their family members a better sense of their wishes. Studies, such as this one, look at large groups of people, not at individuals. The task of the front line healthcare provider, like myself, is to use the insights of a study like this in our daily work to be more helpful to all patients who I treat, and their family members. There are very significant differences in the end of life wishes of patients from different ethnic groups and this is very important for all providers to be aware of so that goals of care discussion can be approached in as appropriate and as sensitive a manner as possible.

Personally, I couldn’t agree more with the palliative care doctor’s comment.  But the overwhelming bulk of the comments were similar in sentiment to the top two comments: this type of research is harmful and not helpful.

As a scientist, I believe we should be able to explain our research clearly to the public.  But are the lay public sophisticated enough to understand the twin risks of ignoring differences in attitudes and behaviors by cultural group on the one hand, and propagating stereotypes on the other? 

Is studying race/ethnicity and attitudes toward death harmful or helpful?

by: Alex Smith

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