What Black Physicians Want Others to Know

Alok S. Patel, MD


August 26, 2020

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Alok S. Patel, MD: Many of us, rightfully, are talking about racism in healthcare. Quick question: How many of you have checked in and talked to your Black colleagues, asked about their opinions, or learned from their experiences?

Only 5% of physicians in the United States are Black. They need a much louder microphone, because it's their voice that should be driving the changes needed in healthcare.

This pandemic has put a spotlight on so many fissures in our society, especially racial disparities. Black communities are getting hit disproportionately hard from COVID-19. Much of it is due to social determinants of health, which we should have addressed decades ago.

Then there's the whole topic of police brutality, which was painfully illustrated by George Floyd's murder. You take all of this together, and over the past few months, systemic racism has been plastered on headlines all over the country.

In June, there were global protests and it was inspiring to see so many doctors, nurses, technicians, and other healthcare workers participate in a march, take a knee, or hold peaceful rallies. People were echoing the sentiments of White Coats for Black Lives, a student-run organization with the mission to dismantle racism in healthcare.

I have to be candid here. Changing our attitude, fixing unconscious bias, and demanding policy changes are all crucial, but unless we put Black healthcare professionals' voices front and center, there's going to be a huge gap in understanding.

I spoke with two Black physicians, Dr Maura Jones and Dr Cedric "Jamie" Rutland, and asked them a simple question: What do you want to say to non-Black physicians? What do you want all of us to understand?

Maura Jones, MD: Racism is real. Believe us when we tell you what happened to us. And more than that, when you see it, call it out. It is not enough to be an ally. You must be actively antiracist and do the work to dismantle the systems that exist in this country. Do the work to change the minds of those around you. Do the work to teach your kids. Do the work to have these conversations with friends.

Cedric "Jamie" Rutland, MD: I want non-Black physicians to know when they are making those executive decisions in that boardroom, look around the room and ask if there is Black representation.

Jones: Support our cause. Show us that our lives matter.

Rutland: I want non-Black physicians to understand that when I was a third-year medical student, after a long ob/gyn rotation, a patient's husband said to the new medical student on the rotation, "I never loved a colored fellow as much as I love Jamie, but I do."

The med student, who was White, came to me and said that he thought that it was weird, but he didn't tell the patient. I want you to know that it's okay to tell the patient. It's okay to tell a patient, "That's inappropriate. He appreciates the compliment, but what you said is inappropriate. I want you to know that."

Jones: We took an oath to first do no harm, but the healthcare system in this country does harm to Black and brown bodies every single day.

Rutland: I want non-Black physicians to know that during the height of the most recent movement, my 7-year-old daughter asked, "How are they going to know that I'm White?" She wanted to know how police were going to know that she was White so that she could be safe.

That's what I want you to know.

Jones: We need more Black doctors, hands down.

Patel: I will never understand what Black physicians have had to deal with and what they currently have to fight against. I've heard stories of attendings singling out residents because they're Black, mistreatment from other colleagues, and xenophobic remarks from patients. I've even heard stories of admission committee members making jokes about affirmative action.

I don't know what it's like to go and work in a hospital during a pandemic and then leave the hospital and be worried that you might be pulled over by the cops because of the color of your skin. Or worry that you or your family members might be the next Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Alton Sterling, or Trayvon Martin.

I can't imagine taking that kind of stress with me to the hospital, and then once again, facing racist remarks in a place where we're all supposed to be on the same team.

Many hospitals (Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Stanford Medical, Massachusetts General Hospital, and more) have antiracism initiatives and diversity committees. I hope that every hospital committee taking on this task is truly listening to and including Black healthcare professionals and amplifying their voices.

I have to give a huge shout-out to the social media world and all the advocacy campaigns, especially the #sharethemedicalmic campaign. That one's incredible; please check it out.

I want to circle back to White Coats for Black Lives and their three goals: (1) foster dialog on racism as a public health concern; (2) end racial discrimination and medical care; and (3) prepare future physicians to be advocates for racial justice.

We all need to hear and listen to doctors like Dr Jones and Dr Rutland. We need to call out bigotry when we see it. No exception. We need to be as outraged about racism as our Black colleagues are. Dr Jones is spot on ─ we need more Black doctors for our field, for innovation, and for our patients.

I'm also going to echo Dr Rutland's sentiment. If we're going to move healthcare forward in a progressive direction, we have to have more Black leaders in healthcare, plain and simple.

These goals are attainable through collaboration and commitment. Along the way, we need to remember to actively listen and learn from our Black colleagues. We can't stay silent. Silence in the face of racism is being complicit. Racism is a disease just like every other one we treat.

When is the last time you checked in with one of your Black colleagues? Asked them how they're feeling or what their thoughts are?

To all Black healthcare professionals out there, what's something you want to share with the rest of us? What do you want us to know?

Comment below. We want to hear from all of you. We're in this together.

Alok S. Patel, MD, is a pediatric hospitalist, television producer, media contributor, and digital health enthusiast. He splits his time between New York City and San Francisco as he is on faculty at both Columbia University/Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital and the University of California San Francisco Benioff Children's Hospital. Alok hosts The Hospitalist Retort video blog on Medscape.

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Maura Jones, MD, is a third-year resident physician working in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California San Francisco.

Cedric "Jamie" Rutland, MD, a pulmonary and critical care physician based in Southern California, is medical director and CEO of Rutland Medical Group (West Coast Lung). He is also an assistant clinical professor at the University of California Riverside School of Medicine.

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