UCLA’s skin of color clinic aims to combat inequitable dermatology care

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One of the many healthcare disparities that people of color face is lower-quality dermatological care, due in part to a lack of education among clinicians on how skin conditions affect people with darker skin tones, according to a 2022 study.

To address these disparities, Caroline Opene, a dermatologist at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Health, opened a skin of color clinic located near the health system’s Santa Monica Medical Center. Opene told Healthcare Brew the clinic serves as a “hub for patients with diverse skin tones and backgrounds to seek care.”

The goal of the UCLA Skin of Color clinic, which opened in fall 2022, is to “make sure that patients with medium to deeper skin tones feel that the unique needs and nuances of their skin are being addressed, and their concerns are being heard,” Opene said.

At least 15 health systems nationwide, including the University of California, San Francisco and Mount Sinai in New York, have been operating skin of color clinics since 1999.

Skin conditions like eczema or melanoma can present differently in patients of color compared to people with lighter skin tones, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.

For example, for patients with light skin, eczema often appears as a red rash. But in people with pigmented skin, the rash usually appears “darker brown, purple, or ashen gray” in color, according to the National Eczema Association.

If doctors aren’t trained to spot the differences in how a skin condition like eczema looks on patients with diverse skin tones, they’re likely to misdiagnose.

And historically, dermatologists haven’t received such training—in a 2019 study, 47% of dermatologists said their medical training was “inadequate” to diagnose skin diseases in patients of color.

Black men are 26% more likely to die from melanoma compared to white people, according to a 2023 study from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. 

The skin of color clinic’s mission is twofold, according to Opene: Not only does it serve as a place for patients from underserved populations to receive necessary healthcare but it also serves as a training ground for physicians to receive better education on spotting and treating skin conditions in people of color.

The clinic operates one morning per week and treats the “full spectrum” of dermatological conditions, including vitiligo, melasma, hyperpigmentation, as well as certain autoimmune conditions and hair loss, according to Opene.

Patients see a resident physician under Opene’s supervision first, and then she and the resident work together to come up with care plans.

“We have a collaborative discussion with the patient…where we discuss the findings on that patient’s skin, complaints they came in with, and then what are the next steps in terms of treatment,” Opene said. “We always aim to provide culturally sensitive and hopefully aesthetically pleasing care because with more melanin, I think, comes more responsibility.”

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