Challenging Whiteness as the Norm in Nursing Education Imagery
Dr. Lydia Wytenbroek & Nicole Hildebrand-Edgar
Images in nursing and medical textbooks reinforce whiteness as the norm. A growing number of studies report that nursing and medical textbooks overwhelmingly depict clients with white or light skin and/or show how various dermatological conditions appear on white skin. A study carried out in the United Kingdom explored lecture material pertaining to pressure injuries in five undergraduate nursing programs in London and found that teaching and learning activities around pressure injuries centered on people with white skin. This means that nurses are less prepared to identify conditions like pressure sores on patients with darker skin. And indeed, there is a higher prevalence of severe pressure injuries in people with darker skin tones.
This lack of diversity is also prevalent in medical education. A 2018 study that analyzed more than 4000 images in four major medical textbooks in the United States, found that only 4.5% of images showed darker skin. Another study analyzing dermatology textbooks found that skin disease was overwhelming depicted in light skin. The notable exception was that STIs were more frequently depicted on black skin.
The lack of images depicting how various conditions appear on darker skin tones has led to healthcare inequities. Dermatologists note that the lack of attention to black and brown skin is one of the reasons why many conditions, such as Lyme’s Disease and skin cancers, can go misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed in patients with darker skin. The five-year melanoma survival rate is 94% for white patients, but only 70% for Black patients. Thus, BIPOC patients are left seeking equal care in a system that is designed largely with the white patient as the normative reference point. Pulse oximeters, for example, which were calibrated using white patients, have been shown to overestimate oxygen levels in people with darker skin by up to seven percent. These inaccuracies can lead to negative health outcomes for patients.
Historical analysis shows us that measurements and instruments have been designed with a strong bias towards people with white skin. The Fitzpatrick scale of skin phototypes demonstrates this. In 1975, Thomas Fitzpatrick, a prominent white dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, developed the Fitzpatrick Scale, a tool to be used to categorize skin colour into one of six gradations or phototypes. Three of the phototypes pertain to white skin, two phototypes represent brown skin, and only one phototype exists to represent the many variations in black skin.
To tackle the lack of knowledge about how conditions present in individuals with darker skin, some scientists and practitioners are raising awareness by developing handbooks for teaching and learning purposes. In 2019, medical student Malone Mukwende, along with Peter Tomany and Margot Turner, developed Mind the Gap: A Clinical Handbook of Signs and Symptoms in Black and Brown Skin, a photo-drive reference guide to the way that signs and symptoms present on Brown and Black skin. The first edition is freely available online, and can be found here: https://sgul.figshare.com/articles/online_resource/Mind_the_Gap_A_handbook_of_clinical_signs_in_Black_and_Brown_skin/12769988. In the United States, a mother from North Carolina, Ellen Buchanan Weiss, discovered that there was a lack of images detailing conditions on brown skin when her biracial son developed a rash at age two. She started an Instagram account called Brown Skin Matters where individuals can submit images of what a skin condition looks like on a person of colour. A medical doctor reviews the photos before Weiss posts them.
In December 2021, a twitter user posted an illustration of a black fetus, which was shared over 47,000 times; many users commented that they had never seen a black fetus illustrated before. The illustrator, Chidiebere Ibe, is a Nigerian medical student and self-taught medical illustrator. He told NBC News: “I wasn’t expecting to go viral, I was just sticking up for what I believe in, advocating for equality in health through medical illustrations. I made a deliberate action to constantly advocate that there be inclusion of Black people in medical literature.” Chidiebere will now have some of his illustrations published in the second edition of Mind the Gap. Ibe plans to continue illustrating and sharing medical images of people of colour. He told CNN: “I want it to be a norm that whenever a person searches online for a particular skin condition, a particular health challenge, that the first pop-ups are Black illustrations or are illustrations of people of color.” His illustrations can also be found on his Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/ebereillustrate/.
A historical lens can prompt us to think about why tools and images exist and how they are used. To achieve more equitable healthcare, we need to understand how systemic inequities are created and then work to address these barriers, like Chidiebere, Mukwende, and Weiss have done.
Lydia Wytenbroek is an Assistant Professor at UBC School of Nursing and Co-Lead of the Consortium for Nursing History Inquiry. She is a historian of twentieth-century health care, with a particular interest in the history of nursing.
Nicole Hildebrand-Edgar holds a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Victoria, where Nicole’s research focused on the linguistic aspects of social inequality. After finishing the BSN program at UBC, Nicole is interested in working in health promotion and education in the community.
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