How Doctors Deal With Discrimination From Their Patients

Photographed by Tayler Smith.
Last week we heard not one, but two stories of black female doctors being told not to help people on flights. "I'm sure many of my fellow young, corporate America working women of color can all understand my frustration when I say I'm sick of being disrespected," wrote Tamika Cross, MD, after her experience.

Unfortunately, studies show that discrimination against doctors due to race or sex is way more common than we realize — about 60% of doctors in training report being mistreated, harassed, or discriminated against. In fact, it's so common that researchers are now looking into how doctors deal with these situations on the job in an effort to advise physicians like Dr. Cross.

For the study, published online today in Academic Medicine, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine interviewed 13 pediatric physicians about their experiences with racial, gender, and religious discrimination. The researchers chose to interview this group of 13 because as part of their jobs, these doctors are also responsible for guiding and supporting doctors in training. So if, say, a young doctor experiences discrimination, there's a good chance they would go to one of these participants to talk about it.

During the interviews, the researchers asked the participants about a few different scenarios and how they would advise a trainee to respond. A few major themes emerged from those conversations.

The first was that medical professionals who encounter discrimination do so under unique circumstances compared to people with other jobs who may deal with this issue. For doctors, patient safety has to come first, Emily Whitgob, MD, the lead author on the study explained in a press release. (Someone should tell that to Delta.)

Another important theme was that these pediatricians often turn to a strategy called a "therapeutic alliance," meaning the physicians found it helpful when faced with discrimination to establish that both they and their patient's parents simply wanted to help the patient.

In other situations, though, the research found that doctors often try to find a way to distance themselves from the other person's words and actions. Instead of taking it personally, they found that dismissing that person's offensive views as his or her "own problem" was key.

While all of this is more depressing than surprising, documenting and exploring these strategies is important for understanding how doctors get through these difficulties, especially because the interviewees also said it was important for physicians to be prepared to handle such situations ahead of time.

The researchers hope these results will help create new training sessions specifically designed to teach strategies for dealing with discrimination. But ultimately the takeaway is that not even saving lives can insulate you from racism and sexism in our society. And in the words of Dr. Cross, that's just "not right."
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