Medicine and the meritocracy


Addressing the patriarchal structure and systemic bias in medicine

Why do patriarchal structures still exist in medicine? How do we resolve systemic bias? Addressing them in isolation – race or gender or sexual identity – is unlikely to create long-lasting change. For change to occur, organizations and individuals need to be intrinsically motivated. Creating awareness and challenging the status quo is the first step.

Over the last decade, implicit bias training and diversity training have become mandatory in various industries and states. Diversity training has grown to be a multi-billion-dollar industry that corporate America has embraced over the last several years. And yet, research shows that mandating such training may not be the most effective. To get results, organizations need to implement programs that “spark engagement, increase contact between different groups and draw on people’s desire to look good to others.”

Historically, the medical curriculum has not included a discourse on feminist theories and the advancement of women in medicine. Cultural competency training is typically offered on an annual basis once we are in the workforce, but in my experience, it focuses more on our interactions with patients and other health care colleagues, and less with regards to our physician peers and leadership. Is this enough to change deep rooted beliefs and traditions?

We can take our cue from non-medical organizations and consider changing this culture of no culture in medicine – introducing diversity task forces that hold departments accountable for recruiting and promoting women and minorities; employing diversity managers; voluntary training; cross-training to increase contact among different groups and mentoring programs that match senior leadership to women and POC. While some medical institutions have implemented some of these principles, changing century-old traditions will require embracing concepts of organizational change and every available effective tool.

Committing to change

Change is especially hard when the target outcome is not accurately quantifiable – even if you can measure attitudes, values, and beliefs, these are subject to reporting bias and tokenism. At the organizational level, change management involves employing a systematic approach to change organizational values, goals, policies, and processes.

Individual change, self-reflection, and personal growth are key components in changing culture. Reflexivity is being aware of your own values, norms, position, and power – an important concept to understand and apply in our everyday interactions. Believing that one’s class, gender, race and sexual orientation are irrelevant to their practice of medicine would not foster the change that we direly need in medicine. Rather, identifying how your own values and professional identity are shaped by your medical training, your organization and the broader cultural context are critically important to developing a greater empathic sense to motivate systemic change.

There has been valuable discussion on bottom-up changes to ensure women and POC have support, encouragement and a pathway to advance in an organization. Some of these include policy and process changes including providing flexible working conditions for women and sponsorship of women and minorities to help them navigate the barriers and microaggressions they encounter at work. While technical (policy) changes form the foundation for any organizational change, it is important to remember that the people side of change – the resistance that you encounter for any change effort in an organization – is equally important to address at the organizational level. A top-down approach is also vital to ensure that change is permanent in an organization and does not end when the individuals responsible for the change leave the organization.

Lewin’s three-stage change management model provides a framework for structural and organizational change in hospital systems. The three-stages of this model are: unfreezing, changing, and refreezing. Unfreezing is the process of determining what needs to change and obtaining leadership support. The actual change process involves getting people on board, empowering them to change and communicating with them frequently. Refreezing cements this change into the organization’s culture by providing support and training to sustain changes. Research has shown that Lewin’s change management model has applicability in the hospital setting.

Industry research in change management methodologies in the business sector has identified sponsorship by CEOs/senior management of an organization and having a structured implementation model for change management as two important factors for ensuring that change efforts are successful and sustainable.

This can be extrapolated to health care organizations – top leadership committed to changing the status quo should solidify organizational commitment by incorporating new attainable and measurable goals into their vision for the organization. Designing a phased implementation of change management methodologies should follow an open discussion to identify an organization’s weaknesses, strengths, capacity, and readiness for change. Lastly, helping busy professionals adapt to change requires innovative and continuous improvement strategies using formal, systematic tools for organization-wide strategic deployment.

Without a concrete commitment at the organizational level, programs such as diversity training may end up being band-aids on wounds that run deep.

I believe that the combination of both individual and organizational commitment to change systemic bias in medicine can be quite powerful. One without the other will fail to permanently change the system. The work to true equality – regardless of the intersecting factors of discrimination – starts with a commitment to change. We may all have different opportunities because of the inequality that is apparent in our systems today, but if we unite around the goal of a bias-free, merit-based equality, it gives us the strength we need to overcome challenges that we once thought insurmountable.

Each one of us is a leader in our own right. Speaking up for those with less power or opportunity than us and supporting talent and hard work solidifies medicine as a meritocracy. Even if the magnitude of change that we fight for may not be realized during our time in medical practice, our commitment to eradicate sexism, racism and discrimination will shape the future of medicine.

Just as our children are a legacy that we leave behind, our work in correcting bias in medicine will pave the path for a better future for the doctors of tomorrow. After all, when I think that my young daughter will be affected by what I do or do not do to address the discrimination, there is no better motivation for me to break down every barrier for her success.

Dr. Kanikkannan is a practicing hospitalist and assistant professor of medicine at Albany Medical College in Albany, NY. This article first appeared on The Hospital Leader, the official blog of SHM.


Recommended Reading

Is your job performance being evaluated for the wrong factors?
The Hospitalist
Hospitalist movers and shakers – July 2020
The Hospitalist
Reflections from PHM’s chief fellow
The Hospitalist
Dear 2020, where do we go from here?
The Hospitalist
Hospitalists confront administrative, financial challenges of COVID-19 crisis
The Hospitalist
How to get a position as a physician leader
The Hospitalist
Hospitalist movers and shakers – September 2020
The Hospitalist
Defining excellence with Dr. Kimberly Manning
The Hospitalist
The path to leadership
The Hospitalist
Hospital leadership lessons in the era of COVID-19
The Hospitalist
   Comments ()