Be Color Aware: Considering Skin Color in Health Care

Be Color Aware: Considering Skin Color in Health Care

A patient’s skin color plays a huge part in making sure they get the care they need. In the medical field, we often look at the skin to diagnose illnesses, determine the best treatments for conditions, monitor a patient’s health, and identify warning signs. However, different symptoms will show up drastically differently on different skin colors. 

However, it could be that racial disparities in health care have led to a distinct lack of skin color discussion in medical training programs and in diagnostic methods. As health care professionals, we are responsible for learning how to recognize and provide the best possible care for all of our patients. Part of that is understanding the importance of considering skin color and learning how to incorporate that awareness into our everyday practices.

Racial Disparities in Health Care is a Diversity Problem

All patients should be able to receive the same high-quality care. When we go through regular diversity training, that means identifying and respecting a patient’s culture and background. 

That also means recognizing and acknowledging different skin colors and being aware of how that can affect our medical process. The problem is we as health care professionals aren’t usually taught what we need in order to be color aware.

Language Outside of the Medical Field Often Refers to Lighter Skin

When we talk about a healthy baby, many talk about one that’s “pink.” When we think of someone going pale, we may think of ghostly white skin. Jaundice is yellow, rashes are red, and bruises are dark purple.

A lot of this more common knowledge is pretty well known outside of the medical community. But all of those signs and symptoms can look very different on people with darker skin. 

Dermatological Problems & Symptoms Show Differently on Darker Skin

Arms of different colors sporting the same dermatological condition

Dermatological symptoms will show differently based on if you’re looking at lighter skin or darker skin. In the medical field, we’re taught to look for and use many skin-based symptoms to diagnose a problem. We look for redness and blanching. We watch for jaundice or cyanosis.

All those signs will appear dramatically different on darker skin, though. For patients with darker skin, a blanching test isn’t very useful.

Our Textbooks Show Examples on Lighter Skin

A known diversity issue in medical training and education programs is the lack of diversity in textbooks. Open any medical textbook with photos to show examples of symptoms on the skin, and the vast majority will show patients with light skin. In fact, a study from the University of Pennsylvania that analyzed textbooks found that only maybe 4% to 18% of images used were of dark skin.

It’s such a prevalent issue that a second-year medical student at the St George’s, University of London created a book called Mind The Gap to teach other health care professionals about how to identify symptoms on darker skin tones.

Our Research Studies & Journals Show Examples on Lighter Skin

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped to highlight in real-time the issue of racial disparities in health care. Skin rashes are a known symptom of COVID-19, and the disease is negatively affecting patients of color at disproportionate rates. 

When some health care professionals tried to look up what those rashes looked like on darker skin, they couldn’t find anything. It’s a common trend in research studies and journals unless the topic is specifically focused on patient demographics with darker skin.

What Does It Mean to Be Color Aware?

As health care professionals, our priority is to give our patients the best care they need. And we can’t do that if we can’t properly identify and diagnose their problems. 

Even if you don’t normally work in an area where you regularly see patients with different skin colors, you still need to learn how different skin colors can affect your job. Many patients with darker skin feel unheard, or they’re routinely misdiagnosed and suffer the consequences of severe medical treatments not getting recognized and treated in time.  

Being color aware in your medical practice can:

  • Prevent misdiagnosis of diseases
  • Get patients the right treatments they need
  • Foster change in the medical community for training and learning
  • Encourage more patients to feel like they can get the help they need

Our medical programs and training may not have adequately prepared many of us to properly care for patients with darker skin. But we can change those racial disparities in health care now by making the choice to understand the problem and work toward a better future. 

Michelle Paul

Michelle Paul is an RN Content Specialist at Clipboard Health. She has worked with a variety of patient demographics, ranging from young adults in foreign countries, to elderly residents in skilled nursing facilities, to healthy blood donors in her community. Her experience in content creation gives her a unique perspective on communication within the healthcare field.