Majority of doctors hear derogatory, racist and sexist comments from patients

(Image: Getty/Jupiter Images)
A majority of doctors have gotten an abusive comment from a patient. (Getty/Jupiter Images)

Doctors take a lot of abuse at the hands of patients, including offensive remarks about gender, age, race and ethnicity, according to a new study.

Some 59% of doctors said they confront bias from patients, according to the joint survey by WebMD and Medscape of more than 1,000 healthcare professionals.

And many doctors aren’t taking the abuse sitting down. Four in 10 doctors said in the survey that when faced with patient prejudice they take action to report it or address it, either by documenting the bias in a patient’s medical record or reporting it to an authority.

When it comes to patient bias, young, female, African-American and Asian healthcare professionals experience bias more frequently, the survey found.

However, that bias can be a two-way street. In a companion survey of patients, 11% reported hearing offensive remarks from their healthcare professional.

“When either a patient or a physician brings prejudice into the healthcare setting, it can strain the doctor-patient relationship, even if the treatment is not impacted,” Arefa Cassoobhoy, M.D., senior medical director for WebMD and Medscape, said. Patients may be surprised to know that not only do healthcare professionals notice bias, they may document it in the patient chart, she added.

The survey included more than 800 doctors, as well as registered nurses, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Nearly six in 10 doctors said they experience bias most often related to their physical characteristics. Forty-seven percent said a patient requested a different doctor. However, only 9% of physicians have refused to care for a patient who expressed bias toward them.

One way to counter the problem is to train physicians and other providers about how to talk to patients about their biases so they do not stay silent when faced with racism, religious discrimination and other forms of bigotry. Doctors are beginning to speak out about the problem. The story of a flight attendant who turned down the help of a young black female doctor—assuming she couldn’t be a real physician­­—resulted in headlines across the country last year and a strong reaction on social media.