An amputation is a preventative measure. It is done for a few reasons: To stop the spread of a gangrenous infection and to save more of a limb after there is no blood flow to the limb after a period of time. Other reasons are due to trauma and diabetes. Trauma, infection, and diabetes are leading causes of amputation in developing countries whereas in developed countries it is peripheral vascular disease (Sarvestani and Azam, 2013). Poor circulation to an affected limb leads to tissue death—when the tissue begins turning black, it means that there is no or low blood flow to the tissue, and to save more of the limb, the limb is amputated just above where the infection is. About 1.8 million Americans are living as amputees. After amputation, there is a phenomenon called “phantom limb” where amputees can “feel” their limb they previously had, and even feel pain to it, and it is very common in amputees; about 60-80 percent of amputees report “feeling” a phantom limb (see Collins et al, 2018; Kaur and Guan, 2018). The sensation can occur either immediately after amputation or years after. Phantom limb pain is neuropathic pain—a pain that is caused by damage to the somatosensory system (Subedi and Grossberg, 2011). Amputees even have shorter lifespans. When foot-amputation is performed due to uncontrolled diabetes, mortality ranges between 13-40 percent for year one, 35-65 percent for year 3, and 39-85 percent in year 5 (Beyaz, Guller, and Bagir, 2017).
Race and amputation
Amputation of the lower extremities are the most common amputations (Molina and Faulk, 2020). Minority populations are less likely to receive preventative care, such as preventative vascular screenings and care, which leads to them being more likely to undergo amputations. Such populations are more likely to suffer from disease of the lower extremities, and it is due to this that minorities undergo amputations more often than whites in America. Minorities in America—i.e., blacks and “Hispanics”—are about twice as likely as whites to undergo lower-extremity amputation (Rucker-Whitaker, Feinglass, and Pearce, 2003; Lowe and Tariman, 2008; Lefebvre and Lavery, 2011; Mustapha et al, 2017; Arya et al, 2018)—so it is an epidemic for black America. Blacks are even more likely to undergo repeat amputation (Rucker-Whitaker, Feinglass, and Pearce, 2003). In fact, here is a great essay chronicling the stories of some double-amputee black patients.
Why do blacks undergo amputations more often than whites? One answer is, of course: Physician bias. For example, after controlling for demographic, clinical, and chronic disease status, blacks were 1.7 times more likely than whites to undergo lower-leg amputations (Feinglass et al, 2005; Regenbogen et al, 2007; Lefebvre and Lavery, 2011). What is a cause of this is inequity in healthcare—note that “inequity” here means differences in care that are avoidable and unjust (Sudana and Blas, 2013).
Another reason is due to complications from diabetes. Blacks have higher rates of diabetes than whites (Rodriguez and Campbell, 2007) but see Signorello et al (2007). Muscle fiber differences between races (see also here). Differences in hours-slept between blacks and whites, too, could also explain the severity of the disease. But what could also be driving differences in diabetes between races is the fact that blacks are more likely than whites to live in “food swamps.” Food swamps are where it is hard to find nutritionally-dense food, whereas food deserts are areas where there is little access to healthy, nutritious food. In fact, a neighborhood being a food swamp is more predictive of obesity status of the population in the area than is its being a food desert (Cooksey-Stowers, Schwartz, and Brownell, 2017). Along with the slew of advertisements in that are directed to low-income neighborhoods (see Cassady, Liaw, and Miller, 2015), we can now see how such things like food swamps contribute to high hospitalization rates in low-income neighborhoods (Phillips and Rogriguez, 2019). These amputations are preventable—and so, we can say that there is a lack of equity in healthcare between races which leads to these different rates in amputation—before even thinking about physician bias. Amputation rates for blacks in the southeast can be almost seven times higher than other regions (Goodney et al, 2014).
Stapleton et al (2018: 644) conclude in their study on physician bias and amputation:
Our study demonstrates that such justifications may be unevenly applied across race, suggesting an underlying bias. This may reflect a form of racial paternalism, the general societal perception that minorities are less capable of “taking care of themselves,” even including issues related to health and disease management.23 Underlying bias may prompt more providers to consider amputation for minority patients. Furthermore, unlike in transplant surgery, there is currently no formal process for assessing patient compliance with treatment protocols or self-care in vascular surgery.24 Asking providers to make snap judgments about patient compliance, without a protocol for objective assessment, allows subconscious bias to influence patient care.
Physician bias is pervasive (Hoberman, 2012)—whether it is conscious or unconscious racial bias. Such biases can and do lead to outcomes that should not occur. By attempting to reduce disparities in healthcare that then lead to negative outcomes, we can then attempt to improve the quality of healthcare given to lower-income groups, like blacks. Such biases lead to negative health outcomes for blacks (such as the claim that blacks feel less pain than whites), and if they were addressed and conquered, then we could increase equity between groups until access to healthcare is equal—and physician bias is an impediment to access to equal healthcare due to the a priori biases that physicians may hold about certain racial/ethnic groups. Medical racism, therefore, drives a lot of the amputation differences between blacks and whites. Hospitals that are better equipped to offer revascularization services (attempting to save the limb by increasing blood flow to the affected limb) even had a higher rate of amputations in blacks when compared to whites (Durazzo, Frencher, and Gusberg, 2013).
For example. Mustapha et al (2017) write:
Compared to Caucasian patients, several studies have found that African-Americans with PAD are more likely to be amputated and less likely to have their lower limb revascularized either surgically or via an endovascular approach [3–9]. In an early analysis of data from acute-care hospitals in Florida, Huber et al. reported that the incidence of amputation (5.0 vs. 2.5 per 10,000) was higher and revascularization lower (4.0 vs. 7.1 per 10,000) among African-Americans compared to Caucasians, even though the incidence of any procedure for PAD was comparable (9.0 vs. 9.6 per 10,000) . Other studies have reported that the probability of undergoing a revascularization or angioplasty was reduced by 28–49 % among African-Americans relative to Caucasians [3 6]
Pro-white unconscious biases were also found among physicians, as Kandi and Tan (2020) note:
There is evidence of both healthcare provider racism and unconscious racial biases. Green et al. found significant pro-White bias among internal medicine and emergency medicine residents, while James SA supported this finding, indicating a “pro-white” unconscious bias in physician’s attitudes towards, and interactions with, patients [43,44]. In a survey assessing implicit and explicit racial bias by Emergency Department (ED) providers in care of NA children, it was discovered that many ED providers had an implicit preference for white children compared to those who identified as NA . Indeed, racism and stigmatization are identified as being many American Indians’ experiences in healthcare.
One major cause of the disparity is that blacks are not offered revascularization services at the same rate as whites. Holman et al (2011: 425) write:
Finally, given that patients’ decisions are necessarily confined to the options offered by their physicians, racial differences in limb salvage care might be attributable to differences in physician decision making. There are some data to suggest lower vein graft patency rates in black patients compared to whites.18,19 A patient’s race, therefore, may influence a vascular surgeon’s judgment about the efficacy of revascularization in preventing or delaying amputation. Similarly, a higher proportion of black patients in our sample were of low SES, which correlates with tobacco use,20-22 and we know that continued tobacco use increases the risk of lower extremity graft failure approximately three-fold.23 It is possible that a higher proportion of black patients in our sample were smokers who refused to quit, in which case vascular surgeons would be much less likely to offer them the option of revascularization. While Medicare data include an ICD-9 diagnosis code for tobacco use, the prevalence in our study sample was approximately 2%, suggesting that this code was grossly unreliable as a means of directly measuring and adjusting for tobacco use.
Smoking, of course, could be a reason why revascularization would not be offered to black patients. Though, as I have noted, smoking ads are more likely to be found in lower-income neighborhoods which increases the prevalence of smokers in the community.
With this, I am reminded of two stories I have seen on television programs (I watch Discovery Health a lot—so much so that I have seen most of the programs they show).
In Untold Stories of the ER, a man came in with his hand cut off. He refused medical care. He would not let the doctors attempt to sew his hand back on. Upon the police entering his home to check for evidence (where his hand was found), they searched his computer. It seems that he had a paraphilia called “acrotomophilia” which is where one is sexually attracted to people with amputations. Although he wanted it to be done to himself—he had inflicted the wound on himself. After the doctor tried to reason with the man to have his hand sewed back on, the man would not let up. He did not want his hand sewed back on. I wonder if, years down the line, the man regretted his decision.
In another program (Mystery Diagnosis), a man had said that as a young boy, he had seen a single-legged war veteran amputee. He said that ever since then, he would do nothing but think about becoming an amputee. He lived his whole life thinking about it without doing anything about it. He then went to a psychiatrist and spoke of his desire to become an amputee. After some time, he eventually flew to Taiwan and got the surgery done. He, eventually, found happiness since he had done what he always wanted to.
While these stories are interesting they speak to something deep in the minds of the individuals who mutilate themselves or get surgery to otherwise healthy limbs.
Blacks are more likely than whites to receive amputations in affected limbs than whites and are less likely to receive treatments that may be able to save the affected limb (Holman et al, 2011; Hughes et al, 2013; Minc et al, 2017; Massada et al, 2018). Physician bias is a large driver of this. So, to better public health, we then must attempt to mitigate these biases that physicians have that lead to these kinds of disparities in healthcare. Medical and other kinds of racism have led to this disparity in amputations between blacks and whites. Thus, to attempt to mitigate this disparity, blacks must get the preventative care needed in order to save the affected limb and not immediately go for amputation. Thankfully, such disparities have been noticed and work is being done to decrease said disparities.
So race is a factor in the decision on whether or not to amputate a limb, and blacks are less likely to receive revascularization services.