Doctor stories
February 1, 2017
Racism in medicine – it stops with each of us

Racism is still prevalent in medicine and around the world. As an industry, we need to keep calling for better education and better understanding to ensure that everyone feels able to do their job without prejudice.

This post was originally written by Dr Sam Hazledine back in 2017... but thinking about current events, has anything changed? Dr Hazledine is a doctor, speaker and advocate for doctor wellbeing. In 2006, he founded medical recruitment agency MedRecruit, which helps doctors build great careers and find a better work-life balance. He's also the founder of Medworld.

Today we had a doctor register with us, and send in comments about a doctor we used in some of our online material. He referenced their nationality in a derogatory way and how he thought patients would feel about being treated by a “foreigner” like that.

I was disgusted to have someone share something so overtly racist.

I’m not naïve, I know racism exists in medicine, but I’ve never had someone communicate it overtly to me.

But I’m glad they did, because racism in medicine is not OK, and it made me think really deeply about it.

It’s almost impossible to make an argument that racism is OK; we are all part of the human race, there are no biological differences between races, and no race is inherently superior or inferior. So why are there still doctors like the one who registered with us who express racist views and act in a racist way?

Prejudice is, of course, a universal trait. We all prejudge situations and other people: this probably evolved from our survival instinct, which required early humans to make instant decisions when assessing external threats. And it’s still useful in many situations; I only buy Fox gear for riding my motocross bike in. I know it’s good quality and good value. Does this mean I might miss out on buying other good gear? Of course, but I’m OK with that because it saves me time and no one is getting hurt.

But to prejudge a person is to make a decision about someone based on minimal information – and despite the obvious flaws in this thinking, research shows that it endures. Some studies even show that we form a strong opinion about others within 15 seconds of meeting them.

So what do we mean by “racist”?

In its purest sense, a racist is someone who believes another person is inherently inferior due to the biological fact of their race. This is the racism I experienced from this doctor’s communications.

But there’s a much more difficult form of racism that is harder to see and address; covert racism: either by individuals who have subconscious prejudices or by institutional structures that discriminate indirectly by default.

On an individual level, we take on the views of those close to us, we spend time with people “like us”, we’re quick to judge, and we have a tendency to blame people who are different to us for our problems.

And in any given organisation, successful qualities are seen as those possessed by its leaders. Different personal qualities are overlooked, effectively excluding large groups of people who may be perfectly able to do the job in question, but have a different cultural background. Willfully or not, there’s a strong pull to recruit “people like us”, who “fit in”.

This kind of racism is far more prevalent, and far more damaging, than the overt type – yet because it doesn’t have the dramatic impact of, say, cameraphone footage or a celebrity gaffe, it’s little reported.

And the reality is, most of us probably do have some sort of racial prejudices. To pretend we don’t means we can’t address them, and that’s almost as bad as overt racism. To acknowledge to ourselves that we do is the start of making a meaningful change.

I don’t have the perfect solution, but I do know that the solution must sit with all of us. I believe that we must:

  1. Become aware of our own prejudices
  2. Consciously choose whether these prejudices are productive, or whether they are founded in BS (like all racism is)
  3. Act in a better way

40% of the medical workforce in Australasia was trained overseas. Foreign doctors are essentially providing half the medical care our populations need. We should be grateful for them. I know I am.

My decision today was whether we as a company should work with the doctor who sent in the racism remarks.

We won’t.

His overt racism is not OK and does not reflect the values of MedRecruit. Will this cost me money? Possibly, but if we are flexible when it comes to our values and only apply them when it’s convenient, then what do we really stand for?

The solution sits with each of us and in our daily actions. I encourage you to become conscious of any prejudices you might have when it comes to race, then act in a better way. We can each be the change we want to see in our own worlds, and when we all do it, our profession evolves.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments about this; whether you’ve experienced it in the workplace, seen it, or whether you have suggestions to improve things.

Article by
Dr Sam Hazledine

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