Health Advice



What military doctors can teach us about power in the United States

Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

Power is invisible, but its effects can be seen everywhere — especially in the health records of active duty military personnel.

By examining details of 1.5 million emergency room visits at U.S. military hospitals nationwide, researchers found that doctors invested significantly more resources in patients who outranked them than in patients of equal or lesser rank. The additional clinical effort devoted to powerful patients came at the expense of junior patients, who received worse care and were more likely to become seriously ill.

Military rank wasn't the only form of power that translated into inequitable treatment. The researchers documented that patients fared better when they shared the same race or gender as their doctor, a pattern that tended to favor white men and caused Black patients in particular to be shortchanged by their physicians.

The results were published Thursday in the journal Science.

The findings have implications far beyond the realm of the military, said Manasvini Singh, a health and behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University who conducted the research with Stephen D. Schwab, an organizational health economist at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

For instance, they can help explain why Black students do better in school when they are taught by Black teachers, and why Black defendants get more even-handed treatment from Black judges.


"We think our results speak to many settings," Singh said.

The disparities wrought by power imbalances are easy to spot but difficult to study in real-world scenarios.

"It's just hard to measure power," Singh said. "It's abstract, it's complicated."

That's where the military health records come in.


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