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Asking Patients About Race/Ethnicity: Right Ways and Wrong Ways

To evaluate and address health and health care disparities, collecting information on patients' race, ethnicity, and preferred language is crucial. But how should providers gather such potentially sensitive information?

According to a Fund-supported study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, there are right and wrong ways. In interviews with 220 white, black, Hispanic, Asian, multiracial, and other patients, Northwestern University's David W. Baker, M.D., and colleagues found that many are uncomfortable with being asked for racial information, even though 80 percent agreed that hospitals and clinics should document the racial and ethnic makeup of their patients. Patients said they would feel more at ease, however, if they knew exactly why this information was being asked of them.

In interviewing 220 clinic patients, the researchers team found that people were most comfortable knowing that racial and ethnic data would be used to monitor and ensure quality of care for all patients. Other rationales presented for collecting data—to abide by government recommendations, to ensure appropriate hiring and training of medical personnel, or to monitor quality of care for the individual patient—received less support.

The study also revealed that many patients who were initially uncomfortable with the idea of disclosing this information to a clerk said they would feel more comfortable providing it to a nurse or doctor instead.

The authors suggest that providers clearly explain their rationale for collecting racial and ethnic data to patients and community leaders, and that they seek their input about how best to do it. Most importantly, providers who collect such information must be assiduous in using it to address disparities.

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