doctor taking to female patient

Mental Health Disparities Linked to Physician Perception

This entry was posted in News on May 22, 2017 and modified on April 30, 2019

Statistics clearly show that Hispanics who need treatment for mental health or addiction are less likely to get it than white Americans. We also know that Hispanics have poorer outcomes when treated for substance abuse and are less likely than whites to complete a treatment program. Many possible reasons have been cited for these disparities, including cultural differences, stigma, language barriers and other factors. A large study recently sought to better understand the disparities and came up with some surprising results.

Physicians and Mental Health Assessment

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of California Davis and included over 9,000 participants. Among the participants were Hispanics, African Americans, whites and Asian Americans. The overwhelming finding from the survey data was that people of differing ethnicities receive different treatment approaches from their physicians. For instance, Asian Americans were far less likely than other groups to be asked about mental health, counseled about substance abuse or referred for medicated treatment for mental health issues.

Another important finding was that minority patients, including Hispanics, are much more likely than whites to seek mental health care from a primary care physician rather than from a specialist. Primary care physicians are not specially trained to treat mental health or substance abuse issues, but are able to make referrals. Whether they did make referrals or how they referred patients differed based on the race of the patient. This factor is so important because a patient who only sees his primary doctor is dependent on this professional to lead him to specialists. If the physician does not make a referral, treatment likely ends there.

A Hopeful Finding for Hispanics

In spite of much evidence that Hispanics are undertreated for mental health and substance abuse problems, this recent study made an encouraging and hopeful finding. The researchers combed through the survey data and found that Hispanics were more likely than other racial groups, including whites, to be counseled about mental health care. They were more likely to have been given recommendation for special care from psychologists, therapists and other mental health professionals. The finding is contrary to other data sets, but provides an encouraging insight into the fact that this statistic of undertreatment for Hispanics could be shifting.

Physician Perception

While there is encouraging news for Hispanics, the overall message from the study is still not hopeful. It demonstrates that physician perception is a major reason for treatment disparities. If physicians are treating patients according to race, they must be relying on preconceived prejudices of what their patients need and what they don’t need. Instead of treating and assessing all patients with the same criteria, they are applying different criteria to different patients based on race.

Some perceptions that physicians have about patients are of particular importance to the Hispanic community. The study found that physicians were more likely to recommend medications for treating mental health conditions to patients born in the U.S. and much less likely to do so for those born in other countries. This supports the immigrant paradox. Immigrants born outside the U.S. are much less likely to suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues, although no one knows why  with any certainty. Another finding relevant to Hispanics is that patients with insurance were more likely to be asked about mental health and substance abuse.

There are many factors that contribute to treatment disparities when it comes to mental health and addiction. It is a complicated issue, but when more studies can outline the causes, more can be done to reach people who truly need care.

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