Published: September 11, 2019

Racism and sexism are everywhere, including in healthcare.

Both are woven into the very fabric of healthcare, and though some progress has been made, inequality is still prevalent.

Let’s dive into racism and sexism on all sides of healthcare to see just how big of a problem it is.

Racism against patients

For over 2,500 years, racism and healthcare have gone hand-in-hand. From the height of eugenics to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, people of color have been abused and devalued at the hands of medical professionals.

Today, racism still persists, seen in the extreme racial disparity that exists in coverage and care. 

People of color are more likely to be uninsured and less likely to have access to care. Black women, in particular, have a high rate of maternal mortality. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Why is this? Many say because black women are less likely to have their health conditions taken seriously by medical professionals.

There are several examples of this.

The famous tennis star Serena Williams told the story of how she had trouble breathing after delivering her child, Olympia, via C-section. Having had a blood clot before, she recognized the symptoms and feared she was having one again. However, the nurse dismissed her concerns, saying Williams must be confused. She demanded that tests be run, and lo and behold, she had several clots in her lungs.

NPR shared the sad story of Shalon Irving, an epidemiologist at the CDC who died three weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Soleil, via C-section. Shalon’s blood pressure was dangerously high postpartum, and her leg swelled, but time and time again her medical team failed to acknowledge the severity of her health issues.

It’s likely racism in healthcare—mixed with higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure—contributes to the higher rate of maternal mortality for black women. 

Racism against medical professionals

Patients aren’t the only ones to experience racism. Racism is also inflicted upon doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals of color.

One example of this was written about in STAT, an online medical journal. A black female doctor shared the story of an elderly white patient complimenting her on finishing med school, and then warning her: “Now, don’t waste your affirmative action.” The doctor, Lachelle Dawn Weeks, MD, talked about the hurt she felt, and how she wanted to respond, but instead said nothing and continued tending to the patient.

Weeks wrote in STAT that medical professionals need to be supported by their employers and feel empowered and given the tools to address racism.

We will never eliminate racism and religious discrimination, but we work diligently to — at the very least — ensure that our hospitals are safe and affirming environments for health care providers to discuss how cultural and religious differences affect how we are perceived and treated by those whose lives we have sworn to save,” Weeks wrote.

Sexism against patients

Though it’s now highly discouraged to diagnose a woman with “female hysteria,” that doesn’t stop many medical professionals from dismissing a woman’s health symptoms.

If you’re a woman, you know what we’re talking about. If you’re not a woman, ask your lady friends if they’ve ever felt brushed off by a doctor. Chances are they’ll say they have and tell you more than one story about their misadventures with medical professionals.

One woman I spoke to, Marcia (who asked to be anonymous), experienced sexism many times from her male gynecologist. The now 36-year-old from New York looks back on the experience with commendable grace, but at the time, the experience was horrific. 

Her story begins with her gynecologist departing the room mid-exam and leaving the door open while Marcia was fully exposed. A repairman walked by and darted into the hallway to mitigate embarrassment.

Next, the gynecologist implanted a copper IUD, which Marcia told him didn’t feel right. She returned a week later to have the IUD removed, but the gynecologist said it wasn’t necessary, that maybe Marcia was pregnant. Marcia knew she wasn’t pregnant, but obliged them with the test. Negative. She again asked the IUD to be removed, but the doctor assured her the discomfort was normal. Nothing needed to be done. But Marcia’s pain grew increasingly worse, and she developed a fever that sent her to the ER.

The next day, Marcia called the gynecologist and demanded she be seen. This time her boyfriend went with her, and the gynecologist proceeded to talk only to the boyfriend. They asked the doctor to give Marcia an ultrasound and after a lot of back-and-forth, the gynecologist obliged.

“The doctor came in and spoke directly to my boyfriend,” Marcia said. “He said, ‘Ah, you were right. It is badly placed and needs to come out immediately. I will do it right now. Glad you came.’ He never said one word to me. I never went back.”

Marcia’s story is not uncommon. In a Today Show poll of almost 4,000 respondents, women typically surveyed as feeling more dismissed by doctors than men. Fifty-two percent of women felt gender discrimination in healthcare is a serious problem versus 36 percent of men. When asked if they felt they were treated differently by a doctor because of their gender, 17 percent of women said yes compared to 6 percent of men.

Sexism against medical professionals

Minority Nurse, the leading nursing job board committed to increasing diversity in the nursing profession, surveyed male nurses to see what kind of assumptions or bias they face.

Some men spoke of patients assuming they were doctors simply because they were male, and others spoke of patients not wanting a male nurse tending to them. This points to the common assumption that nursing jobs are only for women and that men who take nursing jobs must be somehow less manly. 

The New York Times spoke to male nurses about this very issue.

“When my wife told her grandfather that I graduated from nursing school, he just laughed,” John-Flor Sisante told the New York Times. “But I think there are more men who are less afraid to take on what have traditionally been considered feminine roles.”

Racism and sexism are most likely not going anywhere anytime soon. But the more we talk about bias and injustice in healthcare, the more we can reach for a better standard—one where patients and medical professionals are treated with the respect, care, and compassion they deserve.

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