Health

Medical Student’s Project Shows How Symptoms Really Appear On Darker Skin

“It is important that we as future healthcare professionals are aware of these differences so that we don’t compromise our care for certain groups.”

Photos: Courtesy of St George's, University of London

Medical student Malone Mukwende immediately noticed the disparities in conventional teachings on how illnesses and symptoms present themselves on darker skin versus lighter skin. 

“On arrival at medical school I noticed the lack of teaching in darker skin. We were often being taught to look for symptoms such as red rashes which I was aware would not appear as described in my own skin,” Mukwende, a second-year student at St George’s, University of London, told BME Medics. “When flagging this to tutors it was clear that they didn’t know of any other way to describe these conditions on patients of darker skin tones and I knew that I had to make a change to that.”

So Mukwende, along with lecturers Margot Turner and Peter Tamony, created a resource that illustrates how the symptoms and signs of various illnesses present differently on darker skin. The booklet, called “Mind The Gap,” is part of a student-staff partnership project examining clinical teachings on Black and Brown skin.

“The aim of this booklet is to educate students and essential allied health care professionals on the importance of recognizing that certain clinical signs do not present the same on darker skin,” Mukwende said via a report from the university. “This is something which is not commonly practiced in medical textbooks as there is a ‘white skin bias.’ It is important that we as future health care professionals are aware of these differences so that we don’t compromise our care for certain groups.”

Mukwende also explained that the booklet addresses symptomatic differences pertaining to race that have manifested during the COVID-19 pandemic. He cited some of them, “such as families being asked if potential [COVID-19] patients are ‘pale’ or if their lips ‘turned blue.’”

“These are not useful descriptors for a Black patient and, as a result, their care is compromised from the first point of contact,” he continued. “It is essential we begin to educate others so they are aware of such differences and the power of the clinical language we currently use.”

According to the university, “Mind the Gap” is not currently published and available for wide distribution, but discussions with potential publishers are in progress. 

Health officials have also highlighted how the coronavirus outbreak has disproportionately affected Black Americans due to decades of structural inequality and disparities in health care.