Doctors: Physicians who benefit from white privilege need to speak out

Family medicine resident Max J. Romano, M.D., knows he benefited from white privilege.

The privileges that came his way as a white physician were many and included factors such as never struggling to find professors and role models in college and medical school who shared his race. 

He never had to fear being stopped by the police because of his race when traveling to the hospital late at night or experienced the feeling of walking into an exam room with a person of color and having patients assume he is the doctor in charge even when he’s not.

“Our medical system is structured to individually and systemically favor white physicians and patients in ways that white people are trained to ignore,” Romano, a resident at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, writes in an essay in the Annals of Family Medicine.

It’s time that white physicians who have benefited from their racial privilege confront racism within healthcare, he says. For instance, collective inaction has led to a decline in the number of African-American males attending U.S. medical schools from 1978 to 2014, he notes. He called on white colleagues to be aware of the problem, acknowledge their own unearned racial privilege that benefited their medical careers and actively work against racism in medicine.

In a related editorial, Joseph Hobbs, M.D., chair of family medicine at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, says Romano describes one of many places to start on the path to address racial disparities in healthcare and in society.

“I have observed the implications of white privilege from the standpoint of one who does not possess it,” he writes.

In healthcare, racist comments and racial insensitivity, racially biased decisions and stereotyping continue to occur in patient care settings, personnel recruitment and management and school admissions, Hobbs says. Failure to address such bias is a missed opportunity to bring about change.

One survey found 59% of doctors said they confront racist and sexist bias from patients. However, some hospitals have reshaped policies to protect the rights of doctors and other employees while providing care to patients, such as Penn State College of Medicine, which added language to its patient rights policy that says it will not honor patient requests for providers based on gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. 

In a study from Stanford University School of Medicine, researchers outlined four steps residents and physicians can take when confronted by a racist patient or family member, including trying to develop a rapport with the patient and depersonalizing the event.