Do Racial Stereotypes Contribute to Medical Misdiagnosis of Child Abuse?
Investigating Tunnel Vision in the Emergency Room
Keywords:Wrongful Convictions, Racial Bias, Medical Misdiagnosis, Child Abuse, Shaken Baby Syndrom
Despite growing recognition that misdiagnoses of child abuse can lead to wrongful convictions, little empirical work has examined how the medical community may contribute to these errors. Previous research has documented the existence and content of stereotypes that associate race with child abuse. The current study examines whether emergency medical professionals rely on this stereotype to fill in gaps in ambiguous cases involving Black children, thereby increasing the potential for misdiagnoses of child abuse. Specifically, we tested whether the race-abuse stereotype led participants to attend to more abuse-related details than infection-related details when an infant patient was Black versus White. We also tested whether this heuristic decision-making would be affected by contextual case facts; specifically, we examined whether race bias would be exacerbated or mitigated by a family’s involvement with child protective services (CPS). Results showed that participants did exhibit some biased information processing in response to the experimental manipulations. Even so, the race-abuse stereotype and heuristic decision-making did not cause participants to diagnose a Black infant patient with abuse more often than a White infant patient, regardless of his family’s involvement with CPS. These findings help illuminate how race may lead to different outcomes in cases of potential child abuse, while also demonstrating potential pathways through which racial disparities in misdiagnosis of abuse and subsequent wrongful convictions can be prevented.
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Copyright (c) 2020 Dr. Cynthia J. Najdowski, Kimberly M. Bernstein, Katherine S. Wahrer
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