COMMENTARY

Shedding the Super-Doctor Myth Requires an Honest Look at Systemic Racism

Tanya Thomas, MD

August 17, 2021

An overwhelmingly loud and high-pitched screech rattles against your hip. You startle and groan into the pillow as your thoughts settle into conscious awareness. It is 3 a.m. You are a 2nd-year resident trudging through the night shift, alerted to the presence of a new patient awaiting an emergency assessment. You are the only in-house physician. Walking steadfastly toward the emergency unit, you enter and greet the patient. Immediately, you observe a look of surprise followed immediately by a scowl.

Dr Tanya Thomas

You extend a hand, but your greeting is abruptly cut short with: "I want to see a doctor!" You pace your breaths to quell annoyance and resume your introduction, asserting that you are a doctor and indeed the only doctor on duty. After moments of deep sighs and questions regarding your credentials, you persuade the patient to start the interview.

It is now 8 a.m. The frustration of the night starts to ease as you prepare to leave. While gathering your things, a visitor is overheard inquiring the whereabouts of a hospital unit. Volunteering as a guide, you walk the person toward the opposite end of the hospital. Bleary eyed, muscle laxed, and bone weary, you point out the entrance, then turn to leave. The steady rhythm of your steps suddenly halts as you hear from behind: "Thank you! You speak English really well!" Blankly, you stare. Your voice remains mute while your brain screams: "What is that supposed to mean?" But you do not utter a sound, because intuitively, you know the answer.

While reading this scenario, what did you feel? Pride in knowing that the physician was able to successfully navigate a busy night? Relief in the physician's ability to maintain a professional demeanor despite belittling microaggressions? Are you angry? Would you replay those moments like reruns of a bad TV show? Can you imagine entering your home and collapsing onto the bed as your tears of fury pool over your rumpled sheets?

The emotional release of that morning is seared into my memory. Over the years, I questioned my reactions. Was I too passive? Should I have schooled them on their ignorance? Had I done so, would I have incurred reprimands? Would standing up for myself cause years of hard work to fall away? Moreover, had I defended myself, would I forever have been viewed as "The Angry Black Woman?"

This story is more than a vignette. For me, it is another reminder that, despite how far we have come, we have much further to go. As a Black woman in a professional sphere, I stand upon the shoulders of those who sacrificed for a dream, a greater purpose. My foremothers and forefathers fought bravely and tirelessly so that we could attain levels of success that were only once but a dream. Despite this progress, a grimace, carelessly spoken words, or a mindless gesture remind me that, no matter how much I toil and what levels of success I achieve, when I meet someone for the first time or encounter someone from my past, I find myself wondering whether I am remembered for me or because I am "The Black One."

Honest Look at Medicine Is Imperative

It is important to consider multiple facets of the super-doctor myth. We are dedicated, fearless, authoritative, ambitious individuals. We do not yield to sickness, family obligations, or fatigue. Medicine is a calling, and the patient deserves the utmost respect and professional behavior. Impervious to ethnicity, race, nationality, or creed, we are unbiased and always in service of the greater good. Often, however, I wonder how the expectations of patient-focused, patient-centered care can prevail without an honest look at the vicissitudes facing medicine.

We find ourselves amid a tumultuous year overshadowed by a devastating pandemic that skews heavily toward Black and Brown communities, in addition to political turmoil and racial reckoning that sprang forth from fear, anger, and determination ignited by the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd – communities united in outrage lamenting the cries of Black Lives Matter.

I remember the tears briskly falling upon my blouse as I watched Mr Floyd's life violently ripped from this Earth. Shortly thereafter, I remember the phone calls, emails, and texts from close friends, acquaintances, and colleagues offering support, listening ears, pledging to learn and endeavoring to understand the struggle for recognition and the fight for human rights. Even so, the deafening support was clouded by the preternatural silence of some medical organizations. Within the Black physician community, outrage was palpable. We reflected upon years of sacrifice and perseverance despite the challenge of bigotry, ignorance, and racism – not only from patients and their families – but also colleagues and administrators. Yet, in our time of horror and need, in those moments of vulnerability ... silence. Eventually, lengthy proclamations of support were expressed through various media. However, it felt too safe, too corporate, and too generic and inauthentic. As a result, an exodus of Black physicians from leadership positions and academic medicine took hold as the blatant continuation of rhetoric – coupled with ineffective outreach and support – finally took its toll.

Frequently, I question how the obstacles of medical school, residency, and beyond are expected to be traversed while living in a world that consistently affords additional challenges to those who look, act, or speak in a manner that varies from the perceived standard. In a culture where the myth of the super doctor reigns, how do we reconcile attainment of a false and detrimental narrative while the overarching pressure acutely felt by Black physicians magnifies in the setting of stereotypes, sociopolitical turbulence, bigotry, and racism? How can one sacrifice for an entity that is unwilling to acknowledge the psychological implications of that sacrifice?

Throughout my medical career, I encountered, personally and remotely, various incidents that emphasize the unique struggles facing Black physicians. For instance, while in medical school, I transitioned my hair to its natural state but was counseled against doing so because of the risk of losing residency opportunities as a direct result of my "unprofessional" appearance. Throughout residency, multiple incidents come to mind, including frequent demands to see my hospital badge despite the same not being of asked of my White cohorts; denial of entry into physician entrance within the residency building because, despite my professional attire, I was presumed to be a member of the custodial staff; and patients being confused and asking for a doctor despite my long white coat and clear introductions.

Furthermore, the fluency of my speech and the absence of regional dialect or vernacular are quite often lauded by patients. Inquiries to touch my hair as well as hypotheses regarding my nationality or degree of "blackness" with respect to the shape of my nose, eyes, and lips are openly questioned. Unfortunately, those uncomfortable incidents have not been limited to patient encounters.

In one instance, while presenting a patient in the presence of my attending and a 3rd-year medical student, I was sternly admonished for disclosing the race of the patient. I sat still and resolute as this doctor spoke on increased risk of bias in diagnosis and treatment when race is identified. Outwardly, I projected patience but inside, I seethed. In that moment, I realized that I would never have the luxury of ignorance or denial. Although I desire to be valued for my prowess in medicine, the mythical status was not created with my skin color in mind. For is avoidance not but a reflection of denial?

In these chaotic and uncertain times, how can we continue to promote a pathological ideal when the roads traveled are so fundamentally skewed? If a White physician faces a belligerent and argumentative patient, there is opportunity for debriefing both individually and among a larger cohort via classes, conferences, and supervisions. Conversely, when a Black physician is derided with racist sentiment, will they have the same opportunity for reflection and support? Despite identical expectations of professionalism and growth, how can one be successful in a system that either directly or indirectly encourages the opposite?

As we try to shed the super-doctor myth, we must recognize that this unattainable and detrimental persona hinders progress. This myth undermines our ability to understand our fragility, the limitations of our capabilities, and the strength of our vulnerability. We must take an honest look at the manner in which our individual biases and the deeply ingrained (and potentially unconscious) systemic biases are counterintuitive to the success and support of physicians of color.

Tanya Thomas, MD, is a board-certified adult psychiatrist with an interest in chronic illness, women's behavioral health, and minority mental health. She currently practices in North Kingstown and East Providence, R.I. She has no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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