Personal Health

What Can Doctors Do About Racist Patients?

Not a whole lot, unfortunately.

Photo Credit: VGstockstudio /

Recently a Delta flight attendent didn't believe a black woman who told her she was a doctor. The incident went viral because the doctor, Tamika Cross, spoke out about it, and in doing so, she brought the issue of racism against doctors of color to the forefront of the national conversation. 

This week, a Huffington Post article by Anna Almendrala profiles Dr. Emily Whitgob, who set out to answer the uncomfortable question, "How should doctors and their supervisors handle discriminatory requests?"

It's a lingering question for physicians that's been hovering over the medical world for some time. In 2013, Pauline W. Chen covered the issue in detail for the New York Times in a piece titled "When the Patient Is Racist." Tara Haelle wrote about it this February for MedScape in the article, "How Should Physicians Respond to Racist Patients?" And several medical writers have broached the topic in the past.

Despite the growing discussion, it remains a question: exactly how should medical professionals address and cope with racism?

Almendrala's piece notes the high dropout rates of medical students of color in the U.S., and the unusually high rates of depression and suicide among medical students and doctors in general, which are heightened for students of color. She notes that while research on the topic is lacking, a "2011 survey of 377 medical school graduates found that 35 percent of them had experienced intimidation, harassment and/or discrimination from patients, and that it was primarily based on race, gender and culture."

The second half of her piece summarizes Whitgob's new guidelines for how doctors, who are under a Hippocratic Oath to help all of their patients, can handle discrimination from the people they are sworn to heal. The four-step guidelines are as follow:

  1. Ignore comments during an emergency
  2. Focus on the shared goal of treatment
  3. De-personalize the event
  4. Hospitals need to demonstrate support
Read more about the issue, as well as detailed descriptions of Whitgob's guidelines, in Almendrala's article.


April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor. 

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