Is a physician’s evaluation of patient pain affected by how attractive the patient is?

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The degree to which physical attractiveness and nonverbal expressions of pain influence physicians’ perceptions of pain was investigated. Photographs of eight female university students were represented in four experimental conditions created by the manipulation of cosmetics, hairstyles, and facial expressions: (a) attractive-no pain, (b) attractive-pain, (c) unattractive-no pain, and (d) unattractive-pain. Each photograph was accompanied by a brief description of the patient’s pain problem that was standard across conditions. Medical residents (N = 60) viewed the photographs and rated each patient’s pain, distress, negative affective experience, health, personality, blame for the situation, and the physician’s own solicitude for the patient. The results showed that physicians’ ratings of pain were influenced both by attractiveness of patients and by nonverbal expressions of pain. Unattractive patients, and patients who were expressing pain, were perceived as experiencing more pain, distress, and negative affective experiences than attractive patients and patients who were not expressing pain. Unattractive patients also received higher ratings of solicitude on the doctor’s part and lower ratings of health than attractive patients. Physician’s assessments of pain appear to be influenced by the physical attractiveness of the patient.

Source: “Are physicians’ ratings of pain affected by patients’ physical attractiveness?” from Soc Sci Med. 1990;31(1):69-72.

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