Why Diagnostic Gaps for Skin of Color Are a Serious Problem

African-American woman with vibrant skinMost patients who experience dry, itchy skin or another skin complaint expect to be able to go to the doctor and leave with a diagnosis. Unfortunately, patients of color often struggle to get an accurate diagnosis for even the most common of skin disorders.

The skin care of patients who are people of color is truly a subspecialty of dermatology. More training is needed for physicians to better recognize common and uncommon conditions that present to both the primary care clinic and dermatology clinic.

Misdiagnosis Matters

NPR recently published an illuminating story on potential gaps in dermatology training for physicians. The story describes how a mother created an Instagram profile, Brown Skin Matters, that demonstrates how a wide range of skin conditions present among patients of color. Some of the photos compare the presentation on dark skin to how it presents on white skin.

The differences are eye-opening. Followers of Brown Skin Matters include not just parents – the creator’s initial audience when starting the page – but people in the medical field. What started as a way for mothers and fathers who struggle to find pictures of skin conditions online that look like their children’s symptoms has become a professional reference tool as well.

From family doctors to dermatologists, the medical school and residency curricula provide little education or training in the diagnosis of skin conditions among people of color. Even something as seemingly simple as a rash can be overlooked by doctors who have limited experience with non-white skin.

As a result, patients with dark skin experience substandard care. With a rash, this might lead to ongoing irritation for the patient. But, with a serious condition like skin cancer, these knowledge gaps can be deadly.

What to Look for in a Knowledgeable Skin Care Provider

Fundamentally, dermatology is a medical specialty dedicated to recognizing the patterns in patients’ skin. Most skin conditions present with a particular pattern that doctors are trained to recognize. Examples include:

  • Oily bumps that form as a result of acne
  • Inflammation and roughness associated with eczema
  • Redness and irritation from a rash

African-American man scratching at itchy skinHowever, skin conditions that stand out vividly on white skin may be more subtle on skin of color. Doctors who are not trained to recognize these differences – “see the patterns” on different patients – may misdiagnose or fail to diagnose common conditions for patients with darker skin.

This knowledge of different skin tones and types comes with training. Although the American Academy of Dermatology does not recognize the treatment of skin of color as a subspecialty, mounting clinical evidence demonstrates the importance of ongoing training and continuing education dedicated to this underserved patient population.

Therefore, when choosing a dermatologist as a patient of color, it is important to evaluate not only his or her credentials as a doctor but the extent to which he or she understands dark skin. The spirit of lifelong learning that makes for a great dermatologist applies to embracing differences in patient care, as well as the latest treatments and technologies.

Why Choose Advanced Dermatology and Laser Institute of Seattle?

Dr. Steven Greene is a board-certified dermatologist. He completed residency and fellowship training at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. He continues to stay up to date with clinical research on a wide range of skin conditions, including their presentation among patients of African descent.

Dr. Greene hires team members who share his commitment to providing one-on-one attention and superior care to patients from all walks of life. You can count on our “Dream Team” to deliver premier service in a comfortable setting with your needs top of mind.

If you have a skin condition that requires qualified diagnosis and care, please call Advanced Dermatology and Laser Institute of Seattle at (206) 402-4797 today to schedule your initial consultation.

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