Irena Stepanikova, an assistant sociology professor at the University of South Carolina, analyzed videotaped medical visits from 1998 to 2000 from another study involving 30 primary care physicians and 209 patients age 65 and older.
"African-American physicians face many professional challenges, including discrimination, bias from employers and colleagues and white patients who question their authority," Stepanikova said in a statement. "The conflicted pattern of communication evident in this study may reflect these experiences."
The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found black physicians' communication with black patients was overwhelmingly positive, but their communication with white patients yielded a mix of positive and negative non-verbal behaviors.
"Black physicians used high degrees of smile, touch and open body position with black patients," Stepanikova said. "With white patients they had a high use of smile and gaze, but a low use of open body position. This conflicted pattern of communication may suggest a lack of social ease."
Non-verbal behavior is especially interesting in the context of studies of race since it operates to a large degree non-consciously, and therefore it often reveals feelings and attitudes that people cannot or do not want to express in words, Stepanikova said.