Is the medical profession immune to prejudice?

“Good afternoon officer, is there something wrong?”

I was a second-year medical resident on the way to my father’s birthday dinner.  It had been a very long week and I was dressed casually in a T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers.  Finally, I could kick back and be “normal” for a day. At least that’s what I had thought prior to being pulled over.

I had previously experienced the occasional purse clutching woman, a few name calling incidents, and the blatant crossing to the other side of the road by strangers, but I had never been surrounded by three police vehicles before.  The way these three officers were circling my car, you would have thought I had kilos of cocaine in the trunk or had just robbed a bank.  Although not quite as serious as coacine, it turns out that I was stopped because my license plate frame was the wrong dimension.  This serious crime warranted backup help.  I was then accused of having a fake car inspection sticker which clearly was not the case.

I am glad my parents had “the talk” with me many years before which encouraged me to keep calm and comply with the officers. Ultimately and sadly, my saving graces that afternoon (which quickly turned into night) were 2 letters that followed my name: MD.  Being a medical doctor validated me in the eyes of these officers (although it took material proof for them to finally believe me).

I am more than aware that this is not an isolated case. These are experiences that many people of all races and backgrounds share but have kept to themselves or others of similar backgrounds. I personally, don’t like to think back to that day, but with current news headlines I occasionally get flashbacks. I cannot help but think what may have happened if I showed any sign of frustration or made any sudden movements.

What would have happened if I did not have my white coat and work identification badge in the trunk of my car? Perhaps they expected the kilos of cocaine; instead they got a doctor.  Even more bothersome for me to consider is what may have happened to my career if I was a few years younger as a pre-med student or in high school. Certainly there are many possibilities, but most likely, my career would have been jeopardized.  These thoughts upset me, but after speaking to a police friend, I was encouraged not to report this incident in order to avoid possible retaliation. Every once in a while I think back and sigh. Why did they choose me that afternoon?  And as we have seen in recent events, there are others faced with similar situations but much different outcomes.

Many of you have likely experienced similar incidents and other hardships due to something you have no control over. This may have placed you at a disadvantage or at least make you feel as though you are at a disadvantage. With the recent happenings in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island leading to nationwide protests, voices are finally being heard but at the same time some prefer to ignore these problems or feel uncomfortable engaging in the discussions. I for one am glad these conversations are being had. Ideas to help prevent future injustices are being brought to the table. We the people are asking for more transparency, more diversity in the work force, better training, and more positive interaction between police and the communities they help protect. Who can argue against this?

I tend to avoid the so-called “pulling the race card” (whatever this means) and encourage minority youths to do the same when possible unless it is for the benefit of all. You always have to pick your battles wisely. Although these challenges are not always recognized or sometimes are dismissed by others who cannot quite place themselves in your shoes, this should all the more encourage you to try harder. It should teach you to treat others as individuals and with the respect you would want them to treat you with.

We must also remember that people like Vivien Thomas, Ben Carson, Rebecca Lee Crumpler and countless others all overcame larger barriers in order to become leaders and physicians who paved the way for diversity in medicine. This is not just for the benefit of one racial or ethnic group but for the benefit of the medical profession as a whole.

As I watch the nationwide protests, I continue to remind myself that these officers are the same men and women heralded as heroes following the 911 crisis. Unfortunately, recent events have tarnished their reputation. In the end, police officers are mere human beings who often function under dangerous and stressful circumstances. They have explicit and implicit biases just as the rest of us have. They are often faced with life and death decisions just as we in the health profession are. This leads to the question:

Are we in the medical profession immune from these prejudices and injustices?

The truth is that the field of medicine also has hidden skeletons in our closet (no pun intended). We cannot forget events like the Tuskegee experiment. Despite our echoing of the Hippocratic Oath at white coat ceremonies, ethics classes, questions on board exams and graduation day speeches, racial and ethnic disparities remain a significant problem in the field of medicine. Studies have shown that some of these health care disparities stem from unconscious biases held by physicians breaching our fiduciary duties. As with the law enforcement field, one potential solution is providing support to promote diversity in the work force.

The words of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror resonate well with the path we must take. The change really does start with each and every one of us. We have made progress but still have a long way to go in order to grow diversity in medicine and shrink the gap in health care disparities.

“Dr. Daniel” is an endocrinologist who blogs at Diverse Medicine.

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