We’d like to think that doctors don’t have racial biases. After all, they are often in control of keeping us alive or healthy, and we’d like to enter the medical system with the faith that we will receive the best care possible. But they do have biases–racial biases. And, what’s worse, these biases–if you’re black or Latino–may lead to you receiving inferior care. Thankfully, health care professionals have started to call out racial biases in their field.
It is unfortunate but true that only a small percentage of practicing doctors in the United States are black or Latino. 56.2% (516,304) of such doctors are white. Meanwhile, 5.8% (53,526) are Latino and 5% are black (45,534), according to 2019 data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.
The paucity of black and Latino doctors may lead to suboptimal care for you if you are a member of the black or Latino community. Yes, the way doctors–the highly-educated and the highly-trained professionals that they are–care for a patient is sometimes affected by the patient’s race. Your doctor may secretly hold racist points of view that affect the quality of care you receive. Excerpts from physician Danielle Ofri’s 2013 book What Doctors Feel are elucidating. Dr. Ofri writes:
Patients can seem so different from doctors that the doctors can have trouble identifying with them.
Some of the challenges to empathy arise from cultural and language barriers. . . . Hispanic patients have a reputation for being very vocal about their symptoms (whence arises the hospital-slang diagnosis Hispanic Hysterical Syndrome). These patients never seem to stop complaining, and doctors rapidly stop listening.
“Hispanic Hysterical Syndrome” is a deplorable, racist phrase. It is hostile toward Latinos, judging them to be too unrestrained, too immature, too unsophisticated to appropriately express themselves. It assumes that having a stiff upper lip, an attribute credited to British people, is superior. It is shameful that such a phrase could find sustenance among doctors.
Dr. Ofri continues:
I have one patient who has been in my practice for many years. Maríssima Alvarez is a sixty-two-year-old woman from Ecuador who is fortunate enough to be free of the diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease that plague most of my other patients her age. But she does have chronic aches and pains that bring her to my office with an impressive frequency. She probably has some combination of arthritis and a chronic pain syndrome. I respect this and try to take her symptoms seriously . . . The problem is that every symptom is “the worst ever.”
. . .
As Ms. Alvarez’s doctor, I am supposed to examine every medical complaint with equal concern, because one of them might represent something serious or life-threatening. But when every symptom ranks 10 (or more) on the scale of 1 to 10, this can be challenging, to say the least.
Whenever I hear her voice on the phone, I can’t help the inner groan, the here-we-go-again reaction. I’ve caught myself starting to tune her out, mumbling or nodding absently to each of her “worst ever” symptoms.
Did Dr. Ofri shoehorn her patient’s behavior into the racist “Hispanic Hysterical Syndrome” narrative? While chronic pain syndromes can have an absolutely devastating impact on one’s quality of life, it seems unlikely that each and every symptom was literally described by her patient as the “worst ever.” It seems much more likely that remnants of the “Hispanic Hysterical Syndrome” narrative contributed to Dr. Ofri’s assessment of her patient–and in turn contributed to Dr. Ofri tuning out the patient. It’s certainly worth wondering whether she would have tuned out a patient who was a non-Hispanic, white woman, or whether she would have more empathy for that patient.
The truth is that some health care professionals privately harbor racist views. Hell, just this week, an Indiana nurse was fired for openly expressing her racist views. What’s unfortunate is that these views may affect the quality of care you receive.
But, what can be done to improve the quality of care? One thing we as individuals can and should do is hold doctors and other health care professionals accountable for the errors they make. All too often individuals who are injured by health care professionals never seek the help of a medical malpractice attorney.
The videotaped death of George Floyd has brought increased awareness to racial biases, even the racial biases that lives in the field of health care. For this, present and future patients should be thankful.
 Of course, there are many people who are black and Latino. Unfortunately, the common framework that construes whites, blacks, and Latinos as mutually exclusive groups ignores, among others, the millions of black Latinos.