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Dealing With Racism Is All in a Day’s Work for Medical Professionals

June 4th, 2018     by Amethyst Tagney     Comments

Photo by Gordon Meyer (Flickr)

Racism in the medical setting isn’t only experienced by patients, as explored in our previous posts. No matter how much education, training, and experience a person can acquire, sometimes people will only see skin colour, a name, or hear an accent. This prejudice exists in many institutions in Western society, especially in medicine. Like patients, BIPOC (Black Indigenous, People of Colour) medical professionals and students can also face discrimination every day from patients, peers, and superiors. Unfair biases can be imposed on them because of inaccurate stereotypes, or flippant remarks are made with little thought of what is actually being implied.

Some BIPOC medical students take this unjust treatment and use it to rise above others in their class, proving to themselves and the people around them that they do belong and have a place in the medical field — which can be hard when a faculty member thinks you’re there to do maintenance work instead of learn. With some schools offering special treatment to white students despite doing poorly on exams or not following proper procedure, BIPOC students have to put in extra work to graduate since they can be graded more critically, as well. If anything, this surplus studying should make people want to request a BIPOC doctor or nurse instead of demanding for a white practitioner.

As a BIPOC medical practitioner, the need to prove oneself doesn’t stop at graduation day, either. After all, a degree can’t change skin colour. Patients may still say racial slurs and make medical professionals feel the need to prove to patients they’re qualified to provide care. Even though many of us are aware that racial discrimination occurs in the workplace, racism towards doctors and nurses still surprises many people since it’s something that is rarely talked about. One reason for this lack of awareness is that being mistreated by patients is considered part of the job as a doctor. Physicians and nurses are expected to treat their patients regardless of their behaviour. Since hospitals may not have specific policies surrounding what to do if a patient is derogatory towards a medical employee, medical professionals may be at a loss as what to do when these kinds of situations occur.

That being said, when BIPOC students and medical professionals do face discrimination from their peers, superiors, or patients, they may not feel they have the adequate resources or policies to turn to that can help them report an issue. Instead of problems being solved, they can be swept under the rug or rarely seen to at all. Even worse, if proper resources are provided, some still feel they cannot come forward for fear of jeopardizing their education and career. When asked about this racially biased treatment, schools, hospitals, and individuals may deny that race was a part of their decision making process. For some, this statement is correct in a more direct sense. People may not intentionally have a person’s ethnic heritage in mind when interacting with BIPOC individuals, but biases still creep into our thoughts whether we are aware of them or not. Since western society and culture has racist undertones, many people grow up with inaccurate beliefs and generalizations about groups of people that affect the way they think well into adulthood. However, no matter if it’s unintentional, the hurt and damage is still done.

Perhaps the main problem with discrimination in the medical setting is the communication aspect of it. Practitioners may not be trained on how to react when racist remarks are directed at them. The same may be true for medical professionals who witness discrimination happening to someone else. Just like international organizations must review and revise their conflict resolution policies due to cultural differences of their employees, it’s integral for people in the medical field to acquire the necessary skills to stand up for themselves and others in a professional manner, especially since patients of all walks of life with differing beliefs and values visit hospitals. Strategies to combat racism need to be emphasized more so during medical training and clearer policies made to address it when discrimination occurs.

Also, as doctors and nurses are often in a position of authority, one could argue that they should do their best to make sure this kind of conduct is stopped when it occurs. Medical students and employees look up to seniority and are more likely to copy their actions and attitudes.

Acknowledgement that discrimination has occurred, and the reassurance that such behaviour is not accepted, can also make a huge difference to the person discriminated against. It’s important that the person experiencing prejudice doesn’t undermine their own feelings and instead trust their instincts on whether something someone said or did was offensive. At times, individuals may try to dismiss those feelings as an overreaction, but each person must listen to themselves before making any final judgments.

Really, the point is to not be quiet when racism of any kind is experienced. Some individuals form protests or go to social media to be heard when institutions fail to do anything about prejudiced behaviour. There will always be people who will say to “suck it up” and that it’s a medical professionals’ job to treat everyone no matter how they act or behave. Although this is true, no one — including medical professionals and students — should have to experience discrimination. As human beings, we all have a right to be treated with respect and dignity. The uncomfortable truth may rub others the wrong way, but it can empower and encourage people who have gone through similar things to speak out and share their ideas on how to make things better. When enough people speak out, some will listen and make a positive difference.

We need healthcare professionals, no matter who they are or what they look like. Although race may not be an outright factor in the way people are treated, racial bias is ingrained in the way we see things and our thought processes. Racial bias still occurs and needs to be addressed if we want a truly inclusive and diverse environment for nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals.

This is part two of a two part series on racism in medicine. Read part one here.

Tags: body politics, health, medicine, race

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