Sam Aptekar

Phuoc Le

By PHUOC LE, MD and SAM APTEKAR

Fifteen years ago, as a medical student, I learned a
terrifying lesson about blindly using race-based medicine. I was taking care of
Mr. Smith, a thin man in his late 60s, who entered the hospital with severe
back pain and a fever. As the student on the hospital team, I spent over an
hour interviewing him, asking relevant questions about his medical and social history,
the medications he took, and the details of his symptoms. I learned Mr. Smith
was a veteran who ran into tough times that left him chronically homeless,
uninsured, and suffering from hypertension and diabetes. I performed a complete
physical exam, paying particularly close attention to his back. Upon reviewing
his blood tests and kidney function, I read the computer’s report: “normal.”

I felt confident as I presented Mr. Smith’s treatment plan
to my attending physician: I recommended a CT scan, ibuprofen for pain, blood
pressure lowering medication, and an antibiotic. My attending listened quietly,
reviewed the labs herself, and then firmly corrected every aspect of my
treatment proposal. “His kidney function is NOT
normal. What you want to do for him can further damage his kidneys. The lab
reported his creatinine as ‘normal’ because it has an algorithm that makes
faulty assumptions based on race.” Mr. Smith, according to the medical record,
was African American.

I almost harmed Mr. Smith because I hadn’t realized that the exact same creatinine level (the key metric for kidney function) yields two different reports based on whether you’re African American or not. The logic goes that because black people supposedly have higher muscle mass on average, healthy creatinine levels for those who check the “black” box is different from those who check other boxes. Physicians around the country continue to rely on this metric even when the black patient is thin, like Mr. Smith. This example of race-based

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