Representations of race and skin tone in medical textbook imagery

Soc Sci Med. 2018 Apr:202:38-42. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2018.02.023. Epub 2018 Feb 23.


Although a large literature has documented racial inequities in health care delivery, there continues to be debate about the potential sources of these inequities. Preliminary research suggests that racial inequities are embedded in the curricular edification of physicians and patients. We investigate this hypothesis by considering whether the race and skin tone depicted in images in textbooks assigned at top medical schools reflects the diversity of the U.S.

Population: We analyzed 4146 images from Atlas of Human Anatomy, Bates' Guide to Physical Examination & History Taking, Clinically Oriented Anatomy, and Gray's Anatomy for Students by coding race (White, Black, and Person of Color) and skin tone (light, medium, and dark) at the textbook, chapter, and topic level. While the textbooks approximate the racial distribution of the U.S. population - 62.5% White, 20.4% Black, and 17.0% Person of Color - the skin tones represented - 74.5% light, 21% medium, and 4.5% dark - overrepresent light skin tone and underrepresent dark skin tone. There is also an absence of skin tone diversity at the chapter and topic level. Even though medical texts often have overall proportional racial representation this is not the case for skin tone. Furthermore, racial minorities are still often absent at the topic level. These omissions may provide one route through which bias enters medical treatment.

Keywords: Medical education; Race; Skin cancer; Skin tone; United States.

MeSH terms

  • Education, Medical*
  • Humans
  • Racial Groups*
  • Skin Neoplasms
  • Skin Pigmentation*
  • Textbooks as Topic*
  • United States