Study: Tuskegee Experiment Ruined Faith In Doctors

It's one of the worst medical ethics disasters in the history of the U.S. -- the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which government doctors lied to black men in Alabama for four decades, pretending to "treat" them for syphilis while in reality they simply watched and took notes as their patients deteriorated.

The lie persisted from 1932 until 1972 when a whistleblower finally exposed the inhumane study, which involved 600 subjects from rural areas who were told they were being treated for "bad blood," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now a new study says there's a real link between the Tuskegee experiment and the long-held, deeply entrenched distrust of the medical establishment among African-Americans. Another four decades have passed, but The Atlantic noted in a June 15 story, black patients are still wary of doctors and the medical community in general, and they're more likely to believe in medical conspiracy theories.

The overall effect, researchers at Stanford Medical School and the University of Tennessee say, is reduced life expectancy among black men. Although many other factors contribute to reduced life expectancy, the study's authors say the Tuskegee experiment and the resulting distrust directly impacted the life spans of black men.

But that conclusion was contested by Aaron Caroll, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Noting that the paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research has not yet undergone peer review, Caroll argues that while it's "an impressive paper," establishing causality is a "stretch."

"We should be careful about assigning blame to a single incident in the past, ignoring the many other issues that existed then, and still exist today," Caroll wrote.

Putting blame on a single incident, he argues, runs the risk of ignoring other major medical concerns, such as black men not having ready access to health care and geographical disparities.

Alice Dreger, a bioethicist at the Feinberg School of Medicine, agreed.

“African-Americans who distrust the health care system see plenty of reasons all around them to do so," Dreger said. "They don’t have to look back 40 years.”

Sources: The New York Times, National Bureau of Economic Research, CDC / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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