Next Generation: Combating Discrimination in the Medical Profession

Next Generation is a BWH Clinical & Research News (CRN) column penned by students, residents, fellows and postdocs. This month’s column is written by Altaf Saadi, MD, a chief resident in the Department of Neurology.

The first time I wrote openly about my experiences with discrimination as a Muslim-American woman physician, I was overwhelmed by the responses I received from a broad range of people, who repeatedly said: “Hey, this happens to me too.” An Indian-American medical student shared with me that, while she was shadowing a primary care physician, the doctor remained quiet when a patient refused to see a specialist because he didn’t want an “Indian-sounding foreign doctor.” A white woman shared that, after telling a friend that her gynecologist was an African-American male, the friend retorted, “How could you let a Black man touch you?” A Latino doctor shared how he was reprimanded by a colleague for speaking Spanish in a hospital hallway—“We speak English here,” he was told. Jewish colleagues who wear the yarmulke shared how their physical display of faith, like my headscarf, invited bigoted comments by patients. These stories confirmed that across various axes of difference (gender, race, ethnicity, religion, ability, sexual orientation, etc.), I was not alone in dealing with experiences that implied I do not belong in medicine.

What also became obvious was the lack of discussion among the larger medical community about discrimination in the workplace. Many of us have suffered in silence, unsure of who would lend a sympathetic ear or relevant advice on how to navigate these difficult conversations. In fact, it wasn’t until I published some of my personal experiences that sympathetic faculty came out of the proverbial woodwork.

Through people’s stories, I also learned that combating discrimination in the medical profession must include more than just physicians. For example, many of the individuals who wrote to me were nurses, patient care assistants, medical assistants and administrative staff coordinating patient appointments. Often the first line of exposure to patients, nurses and other patient care staff dealt with bigoted remarks well before they reach a physician or physician trainee like me. For example, one administrator was asked to reschedule a patient because he did not want a physician who had a “Muslim sounding name.” The doctor was never made privy to that encounter.

On April 22, I was asked to speak at the Boston March for Science about the challenges around diversity and inclusion within the medical and scientific communities. The organizers recognized that my perspective was just as important as speeches decrying proposed budget cuts to research funding and absence of evidence-based science and health policy. They knew, as I did, that in order to move forward, we must also look inward. I was excited to speak to a broad and diverse audience of health care and science workers, which is necessary to effectively address complex problems like bias and discrimination. Pictures from the BWH community at the March for Science illustrate how this came to reality. Administrators, nurses, scientists and doctors alike took a unified stance against attacks on science.

Despite the outpouring of support I received at the March for Science, I am still concerned that the current mechanisms in place for staff members who face incidents of discrimination in the hospital setting are not satisfactory. I am advocating for clearer protocols and guidelines so that those who encounter discrimination will know where to turn.

At the March for Science, audience members carried posters with clever slogans such as “Science Not Silence.” When it comes to issues of diversity, inclusion and equity in the medical profession, we too must not be silent, but continue striving to ensure the hospital is a welcoming place for all.

The following resources are currently available to support BWH staff:

BWH Human Resources (HR) Anti-Harassment Policy
Any member of the hospital community who has been subjected to discrimination in the workplace should notify his or her HR business partner, supervisor/manager or the vice president of Human Resources. To determine who your HR business partner is, please call HR at 617-582-0100.

BWH Human Resources Code of Conduct

“Unconscious Bias Training,” hosted by the BWH Center for Faculty Development and Diversity

The Center for Professionalism and Peer Support encourages and supports physicians and other health care professionals in providing the highest quality compassionate care for every patient. Email or call 617-525-9797.

One Response to “Next Generation: Combating Discrimination in the Medical Profession”

  1. Natalie Kingsbury

    Kudos to Dr. Saadi, this is very important work and there is much to be done.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: