The hashtags #Blacklivesmatter and #whitecoats4blacklives have been dominating social media for the past month. Pictures of people protesting and medical students participating in “die-in” demonstrations at their medical schools have also surfaced. How did we end up here? Racial tension between African Americans and the police has been a longstanding, controversial issue. Only July 17, 2014, Eric Garner died after a white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, put him in a chokehold, even though he repeated to the police officer, “I can’t breathe.” The grand jury decided not to indict Officer Pantaleo based on a lack of evidence. One month later, an African American teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson. The jury did not have enough evidence to indict Officer Wilson of any wrongdoing. However, political unrest swept the nation because many people believed that the Eric Garner and Michael Brown’s deaths were due to the color of their skin.
These incidents have prompted a lot of personal reflection on how race plays a vital role in the doctor-patient relationship. As physicians, we need to know how to communicate with and support patients of diverse backgrounds. This begins first by recognizing any racial biases that you may have and working to improve them. Racial biases can result in disparities in healthcare, contributing to why, for example, African Americans receive significantly less access to care than Caucasians, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. I have witnessed disparities in healthcare first-hand.
Last year, I was interpreting for a Spanish-speaking patient during her appointment with her physician. The patient had chronic kidney failure. The physician felt that the patient should not receive home hemodialysis because of the language barrier, even though the patient did not have a dependable mode of transportation. The physician believed that the patient would not understand how to monitor the machine, as it entailed detailed instructions and required a lot of responsibility. However, the patient recognized the physician’s biases and informed him that he could not limit her options based on the language barrier. The physician, patient, and I were able to create a solution that ensured the patient’s ability to monitor the machine. This personal experience highlights how unconscious biases can subtly affect a patient’s access to care and the manner in which they receive care. This is truly unfair to the patient.
As burgeoning members of a profession with social and political prestige, it is imperative that we physicians are vocal about the issues we are passionate about. This can take many forms- participating in protests, reporting acts of discrimination observed in the hospital, advocating for policy change in clinical or educational medicine, or wanting to raise awareness on issues close to your heart. I am deeply touched by the medical schools across the nation that participated in demonstrations, taking a stand against racial violence. Society views physicians as leaders, and as leaders, we should strive to make a positive difference. Our role and influence extends beyond the hospital. I challenge my medical colleagues to to bear this burden of respect with pride and give voice to those issues of injustice and suffering they see in society!
I am a nontraditional student from Chattanooga, Tennessee. I attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where I majored in Spanish. After graduating from Colby, I lived in Boston, MA for four years, where I worked as a Bilingual (Spanish/English) Domestic Violence Advocate and then as a Medical Assistant. I am in interested in global health and breaking cultural and linguistic barriers in healthcare.
Copyright 2014 USC School of Medicine Greenville