Do You Discriminate When It Comes to Choosing a Doctor?

A doctor wearing a stethoscope

A doctor wearing a stethoscope | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

While most of us take care not to let our prejudices, known or otherwise, affect our decision making, research suggests that we tend to discriminate. When making marginal choices, our subconscious prejudice can push to the surface and tip us one way or another — even if we don’t intend it. Surprisingly enough, that can even extend to our health care system. Sometimes, we tend to subject our doctors and nurses to our prejudices — even when they’re literally holding a scalpel.

Dr. Emily Whitglob, a pediatrician who practices medicine in Palo Alto, California, is now trying to bring discrimination in medicine to the forefront. Whitglob reportedly was subjected to anti-Semitic remarks by the parents of a patient. As it turns out, she isn’t the only one, and it wasn’t an isolated incident.

Whitglob, along with Stanford University School of Medicine researchers, initiated a study into discrimination in doctors’ offices and found that it’s actually pretty commonplace. The study was published in the journal Academic Medicine, and also identified some key strategies that medical professionals can use when they’re confronted with discrimination.

“I was inspired by an event of discrimination when I was a supervising resident, and my intern presented a case to me. After giving me the details of the child’s injury she told me that the parent pointed to her name tag and asked, ‘Is that a Jewish last name? I don’t want a Jewish doctor; I’m from Palestine,'” Whitglob told Researchgate. “I realized that I wasn’t fully equipped to help the first-year doctor deal with this event, nor was our faculty attending.”

Whitglob took action.

Discrimination against doctors

A registered nurse hangs an I.V. bag for a patient

A registered nurse hangs an I.V. bag for a patient | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“When I presented the case to a morning meeting of my co-residents, several of the people in the room were in tears as they discussed discrimination they had faced throughout their education. They were upset to think that physicians face discrimination at this point in time,” Whitglob said.

As for how widespread the issue of discrimination is? “While we did not gather this information in our study, we know from a separate study that 40 percent of disruptive behavior that first-year residents experienced came from patients,” she added.

Whitglob’s work found that physicians face discrimination in many forms. Some patients express the opinion that doctors were hired simply to fill diversity quotas, for example. Others didn’t want their children examined by doctors of a certain sex. One of the most prevalent among patients was concern relating to a doctor’s age.

This is an extremely complicated topic, with many layers of complexity. Obviously, not all patients are going to discriminate or exhibit prejudice in the exam room. But it’s evidently happening, and it’s unclear as to how many people actually realize they’re doing it.

Is there a solution?

A doctor at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham does his rounds on the wards

A doctor at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham does his rounds on the wards | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

As mentioned, we all have prejudices, whether we acknowledge them or not. We don’t all act on them, necessarily. But from time to time, they pop up. We make judgment calls and weigh our options. It’s not always fair, but human beings do what they do.

For that reason, it’s hard to say if there’s really a solution to this problem. Doctors experience discrimination, but so do professionals in every other field. Whether people don’t want to work with you due to your ethnicity, age, gender — it happens. If there’s a way to stop it from happening, we haven’t found it yet.

But Whitglob’s paper does help those in the medical field with strategies for dealing with it. You can’t change people, but you can control how you react to them. The paper recommends “strengthening relationships with involved families, participating in advance preparation and discussion about issues of discrimination and creating a positive, welcoming environment for trainees,” according to the Stanford Daily.

For patients? The best you can do is to keep yourself in check. Think about how you interact with people. Sometimes, things can go awry, but giving a little more thought to how you’re speaking and behaving can go a long way.