I am an emergency room physician who has worked at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital for 17 years. I am also the first black woman to ever be hired as a faculty member, and thus have had the opportunity to teach students and doctors in training. Given that 85% of the patients of the 120,000 patients that cross our threshold annually are black, my hiring carried enormous symbolic weight.
Beyond the symbolism, I’ve found a real effect on patient care. There are a few earlier studies which suggest that patients prefer doctors who look like them if given the opportunity.
Though we can’t yet confirm that physicians and patients of the same race improve health for minorities , we can still argue that increasing diversity in the healthcare professions is a worthy goal. We must move to a place where physicians can comfortably care for people of all cultures and patients can feel comfortable being cared for physicians from different cultures.
In my own experience, African-American grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts all want to give me a hug when they see me walk in the room to treat them or their loved ones: “Go ahead sister,” they might say, “we’re so glad and proud to see you”. I have also had many black patients tell me they were more comfortable talking with me about their history of abuse or addiction. That kind of rapport leads to better care and a healthier population.
If the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Abigail Fisher in Fisher vs. The University of Texas today, which they did not, opportunities for physicians of color who could establish that rapport might have been significantly diminished.
To eliminate or significantly weaken affirmative action, which would have been the result of a Fisher victory, would deal a significant blow to the ability of undergraduate programs to recruit and create a diverse student population—some of whom will continue on to medical school. To be sure, that blow would weaken medical schools nationwide.
I had a severe allergic reaction to a medicine in the hospital in the middle of the night; he ran for the nurse. As for me, despite being a doctor myself, I couldn’t even breathe, let alone call for help. And so, even before and certainly since, I advise my patients not to be alone in the hospital if they can help it. I don’t even think anyone should be alone for office visits. There is too much opportunity to misunderstand the doctor, forget to ask the right questions, or misremember the answers.
National organizations like the American Cancer Society give the same advice: when possible, bring a friend.
As a patient safety researcher and an advocate for high quality healthcare, however, I find giving this advice distasteful. Is a permanent sidekick really the best we can do to keep patients safe? What about those who are already vulnerable because they don’t have such a superhero in their lives, or that superhero just has to punch in at some inflexible job?
Let’s take another look at the circumstances that ended up with my husband shouting, panic-stricken, in the hallway. The medicine I was given is known to cause severe allergic reactions. It is so well-established, in fact, that the standard protocol for giving this medication is to give a small test dose first. It was the test dose that nearly did me in. The hospital followed standard procedure by giving me the test dose. But they chose to do it at midnight, when the hospital is staffed by a skeleton crew, even though the medicine wasn’t urgent. Strike one for safety.Continue reading…