Speak out, don't ignore racism, medical student says

When Jennifer Adaeze Anyaegbunam wrote about how she experienced racism as a medical student, she got two reactions: people who told her to grow a thicker skin and those who had empathy and advice.

The later reactions helped her put her own struggles with the racism she encountered in medicine in context but also offered some ways to combat racism, Anyaegbunam writes in a follow-up essay on STAT, where she currently works as an editorial intern.

Anyaegbunam drew those reactions after she wrote about the bigotry she encountered in medical school, including the time a patient referred to her as a "colored girl" and the attending physician said nothing. Here, she says, are some ways to fight such racism:

Address racism when you see it. In the hundreds of comments she received, Anyaegbunam says, many said they were well-aware of racism in medical practice but didn't know what to do to address it. They didn't know how to respond when a patient, a colleague or even a medical school professor made a racist comment. One recent poll found 32 percent of 290 responding physicians said that a patient had refused their care because of their race or ethnicity. Sue Taylor, M.D., the former medical director of palliative care for Tucson Medical Center in Arizona, told Anyaegbunam she has a ready response when she hears a racist comment.  "I just say, 'It surprises me you would say that' and then they have to stop," said Taylor.

Be sure senior physicians speak up. Attending physicians who serve as mentors to younger doctors particularly need to speak up for those targeted by racism. If mentors actively try to stop racism, it sends a powerful message, says Anyaegbunam, who will soon start a residency in mental health in the Boston area.  

Ensure staff are treated with dignity and respect. In the emergency department at Norman Regional Hospital in Oklahoma, profanity is not tolerated, Mike Isaac, a nurse, told Anyaegbunam. "If somebody cusses at a nurse or doctor, they are told, 'You don't talk to my people that way--and you owe them an apology,'" Isaac said. "And they stand right there until they apologize."

Encourage minority physicians to go into academia. They can provide leadership and serve as mentors to students of color, Anyaegbunam says.

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