Use of Racial and Ethnic Categories in Medical Testing and Diagnosis: Primum Non Nocere

Clin Chem. 2021 Nov 1;67(11):1456-1465. doi: 10.1093/clinchem/hvab164.


Background: Use of race and ethnicity is common in medical tests and procedures, even though these categories are defined by sociological, historical, and political processes, and vary considerably in their definitions over time and place. Because all societies organize themselves around these constructs in some way, they are undeniable facets of the human experience, with myriad health consequences. In the biomedical literature, they are also commonly interpreted as representing biological heterogeneity that is relevant for health and disease.

Content: We review the use of race and ethnicity in medical practice, especially in the USA, and provide 2 specific examples to represent a large number of similar instances. We then critique these uses along a number of different dimensions, including limitations in measurement, within- versus between-group variance, and implications for informativeness of risk markers for individuals, generalization from arbitrary or nonrepresentative samples, perpetuation of myths and stereotypes, instability in time and place, crowding out of more relevant risk markers, stigmatization, and the tainting of medicine with the history of oppression. We conclude with recommendations to improve practice that are technical, ethical, and pragmatic.

Summary: Medicine has evolved from a mystical healing art to a mature science of human health through a rigorous process of quantification, experimentation, and evaluation. Folkloric traditions, such as race- and ethnic-specific medicine will fade from use as we become increasingly critical of outdated and irrational clinical practices and replace these with personalized, evidenced-based tests, algorithms, and procedures that privilege patients' individual humanity over obsolete and misleading labels.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Ethnicity
  • Humans
  • Medicine*
  • Mental Disorders*
  • Research Design