Practice Management

Racism in medicine: Implicit and explicit


With the shootings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other Black citizens setting off protests and unrest, race was at the forefront of national conversation in the United States – along with COVID-19 – over the past year.

Dr. Gregory Johnson, chief medical officer of hospital medicine at Sound Physicians, a national physician practice

Dr. Gregory Johnson

“We’ve heard things like, ‘We’re in a post-racial society,’ but I think 2020 in particular has emphasized that we’re not,” said Gregory Johnson, MD, SFHM, chief medical officer of hospital medicine at Sound Physicians, a national physician practice. “Racism is very present in our lives, it’s very present in our world, and it is absolutely present in medicine.”

Yes, race is still an issue in the U.S. as we head into 2021, though this may have come as something of a surprise to people who do not live with racism daily.

“If you have a brain, you have bias, and that bias will likely apply to race as well,” Dr. Johnson said. “When we’re talking about institutional racism, the educational system and the media have led us to create presumptions and prejudices that we don’t necessarily recognize off the top because they’ve just been a part of the fabric of who we are as we’ve grown up.”

The term “racism” has extremely negative connotations because there’s character judgment attached to it, but to say someone is racist or racially insensitive does not equate them with being a Klansman, said Dr. Johnson. “I think we as people have to acknowledge that, yes, it’s possible for me to be racist and I might not be 100% aware of it. It’s being open to the possibility – or rather probability – that you are and then taking steps to figure out how you can address that, so you can limit it. And that requires constant self-evaluation and work,” he said.

Racism in the medical environment

Institutional racism is evident before students are even accepted into medical school, said Areeba Kara, MD, SFHM, associate professor of clinical medicine at Indiana University, Indianapolis, and a hospitalist at IU Health Physicians.

Dr. Areeba Kara, associate professor of clinical medicine at Indiana University, Indianapolis

Dr. Areeba Kara

Mean MCAT scores are lower for applicants traditionally underrepresented in medicine (UIM) compared to the scores of well-represented groups.1 “Lower scores are associated with lower acceptance rates into medical school,” Dr. Kara said. “These differences reflect unequal educational opportunities rooted in centuries of legal discrimination.”

Racism is apparent in both the hidden medical education curriculum and in lessons implicitly taught to students, said Ndidi Unaka, MD, MEd, associate program director of the pediatric residency training program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

Michael Wilson/Cincinnati Children’s Hospital

Dr. Ndidi Unaka, hospitalist and associate program director of the pediatric residency training program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

“These lessons inform the way in which we as physicians see our patients, each other, and how we practice,” she said. “We reinforce race-based medicine and shape clinical decision making through flawed guidelines and practices, which exacerbates health inequities. We teach that race – rather than racism – is a risk factor for poor health outcomes. Our students and trainees watch as we assume the worst of our patients from marginalized communities of color.”

Terms describing patients of color, such as “difficult,” “non-compliant,” or “frequent flyer” are thrown around and sometimes, instead of finding out why, “we view these states of being as static, root causes for poor outcomes rather than symptoms of social conditions and obstacles that impact overall health and wellbeing,” Dr. Unaka said.

Dr. Ndidi Unaka, associate program director of the pediatric residency training program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital

Dr. Ndidi Unaka

Leadership opportunities

Though hospital medicine is a growing field, Dr. Kara noted that the 2020 State of Hospital Medicine Report found that only 5.5% of hospital medical group leaders were Black, and just 2.2% were Hispanic/Latino.2 “I think these numbers speak for themselves,” she said.

Dr. Unaka said that the lack of UIM hospitalists and physician leaders creates fewer opportunities for “race-concordant mentorship relationships.” It also forces UIM physicians to shoulder more responsibilities – often obligations that do little to help them move forward in their careers – all in the name of diversity. And when UIM physicians are given leadership opportunities, Dr. Unaka said they are often unsure as to whether their appointments are genuine or just a hollow gesture made for the sake of diversity.

Dr. Johnson pointed out that Black and Latinx populations primarily get their care from hospital-based specialties, yet this is not reflected in the number of UIM practitioners in leadership roles. He said race and ethnicity, as well as gender, need to be factors when individuals are evaluated for leadership opportunities – for the individual’s sake, as well as for the community he or she is serving.

“When we can evaluate for unconscious bias and factor in that diverse groups tend to have better outcomes, whether it’s business or clinical outcomes, it’s one of the opportunities that we collectively have in the specialty to improve what we’re delivering for hospitals and, more importantly, for patients,” he said.

Relationships with colleagues and patients

Racism creeps into interactions and relationships with others as well, whether it’s between clinicians, clinician to patient, or patient to clinician. Sometimes it’s blatant; often it’s subtle.

A common, recurring example Dr. Unaka has experienced in the clinician to clinician relationship is being confused for other Black physicians, making her feel invisible. “The everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults from colleagues are frequent and contribute to feelings of exclusion, isolation, and exhaustion,” she said. Despite this, she is still expected to “address microaggressions and other forms of interpersonal racism and find ways to move through professional spaces in spite of the trauma, fear, and stress associated with my reality and lived experiences.” She said that clinicians who remain silent on the topic of racism participate in the violence and contribute to the disillusionment of UIM physicians.

Dr. Kara said that the discrimination from the health care team is the hardest to deal with. In the clinician to clinician relationship, there is a sense among UIM physicians that they’re being watched more closely and “have to prove themselves at every single turn.” Unfortunately, this comes from the environment, which tends to be adversarial rather than supportive and nurturing, she said.

“There are lots of opportunities for racism or racial insensitivity to crop up from clinician to clinician,” said Dr. Johnson. When he started his career as a physician after his training, Dr. Johnson was informed that his colleagues were watching him because they were not sure about his clinical skills. The fact that he was a former chief resident and board certified in two specialties did not seem to make any difference.

Patients refusing care from UIM physicians or expressing disapproval – both verbal and nonverbal – of such care, happens all too often. “It’s easier for me to excuse patients and their families as we often meet them on their worst days,” said Dr. Kara. Still, “understanding my oath to care for people and do no harm, but at the same time, recognizing that this is an individual that is rejecting my care without having any idea of who I am as a physician is frustrating,” Dr. Johnson acknowledged.

Then there’s the complex clinician to patient relationship, which research clearly shows contributes to health disparities.3 For one thing, the physician workforce does not reflect the patient population, Dr. Unaka said. “We cannot ignore the lack of race concordance between patients and clinicians, nor can the continued misplacement of blame for medical mistrust be at the feet of our patients,” she said.

Dr. Unaka feels that clinicians need to accept both that health inequities exist and that frontline physicians themselves contribute to the inequities. “Our diagnostic and therapeutic decisions are not immune to bias and are influenced by our deeply held beliefs about specific populations,” she said. “And the health care system that our patients navigate is no different than other systems, settings, and environments that are marred by racism in all its forms.”

Systemic racism greatly impacts patient care, said Dr. Kara. She pointed to several examples: Research showing that race concordance between patients and providers in an emergency department setting led to better pain control with fewer analgesics.4 The high maternal and infant mortality rates amongst Black women and children.5 Evidence of poorer outcomes in sepsis patients with limited English proficiency.6 “There are plenty more,” she said. “We need to be asking ourselves what we are going to do about it.”


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