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Is physician bias playing a role in black lung diagnoses?

On Behalf of | Jan 22, 2021 | Black Lung

The diagnosis of black lung disease is a devastating and life-changing moment. Doctors with particular expertise in this severe illness known what to look for when reviewing x-rays. Conveying that information to coal miners and family members must be done immediately, without delay.

It is part of the longstanding Hippocratic Oath that begins with, “First, do no harm.”

An uptick of positive black lung diagnoses is occurring in Central Appalachia. According to a 2018 federal study, twenty percent of Appalachian miners suffer from the disease, a significant number when considering that national numbers are in decline at a rate of one in ten.

That is assuming that miners are correctly diagnosed.

Alarming results from a recent study

A strange, if not alarming, trend is emerging following the results of a study from the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health’s Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. Research revealed that doctors retained by coal companies in these particular cases are far less likely to confirm a black lung diagnosis than their counterpart physicians hired by coal miners.

Specific statistics show that when the coal company is paying for the physician, eighty-five percent of medical professionals reading the x-rays did not detect the presence of the disease. Conversely, doctors dealing directly with coal miners had an absence rate of 51 percent.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that coal companies compensate their physicians up to 10 times more than those retained by miners and various advocacy groups. These alleged conflicts of interest are having deadly consequences, with many calling for objectivity over agendas when it comes to these fatal diagnoses.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a body that certifies doctors in this specific practice of medicine, is being called upon to dig deeper to see which physicians show bias that could have tragic consequences.

While bureaucracies battle it out and researchers continue their studies, coal miners and their families are left with the aftermath of unnecessarily late black lung diagnoses.