In the fall of 2016, Hyma Polimera, MD, a hospitalist at Penn State Health in Hershey, Pa., approached the bedside of a patient with dementia and several other chronic conditions, and introduced herself to him and his family.
The patient’s daughter, who had power of attorney, took one look at Dr. Polimera and told her, “I’d like to see an American doctor.” Dr. Polimera is originally from India, but moved to Europe in 2005 and did her residency in Pennsylvania. She stayed calm and confident – she understood that she had done nothing wrong – but didn’t really know what to do next. All of the other hospitalists on the ward at the time were nonwhite and were also rejected by the patient’s daughter.
“I was wondering what was going to happen and who would provide care to this patient?” she said.
Dr. Polimera is far from alone. Nonwhite physicians, nurses, and other health care providers say they increasingly encounter patients who demand that only “white” health professionals take care of them. The number of these reassignment requests has ticked upward in the last few years, they say, coinciding with the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and the subsequent election of Donald Trump.
The requests often come at medical centers with no policy in place for how to deal with them. And the unpleasant encounters find providers unprepared for how to respond, not knowing whether or how to resolve the situation with patients and their families. Clinicians sometimes wonder whether they are allowed to care for a patient even if they are willing to do so, and how to go about reassigning a patient to another clinician if that is the choice that the family makes.
To many hospitalists working in the field, it seems obvious that such situations are encouraged by a political environment in which discriminatory beliefs – once considered shameful to express publicly – are now deemed acceptable, even in health care encounters. Indeed, the health care encounter is perhaps the only time some patients will find themselves in intimate interactions with people of other ethnicities.
Responding to discrimination
A workshop at the 2019 Society of Hospital Medicine Annual Conference offered hospitalists an opportunity to discuss encounters with patients who expressed discriminatory attitudes. One physician, of South Asian descent, said that she had encountered no reassignment requests rooted in racial intolerance over more than a decade of work, but has encountered several in the last year or two.
Sabrina Chaklos, MD, a hospitalist at Burlington, Mass.–based Lahey Hospital & Medical Center and clinical assistant professor at Tufts University, said she has had a similar experience.
“It was blatantly bad behavior for 2018,” she said. Dr. Chaklos said she and other clinicians of color have been told, “I want an American doctor,” and that some patients see her darker complexion and conclude, “You must not be an American.”
Given the charged political environment since 2016, some medical facilities have been adapting how they respond to these comments and requests.
“The policy of the organization prior to 2016 was to give patients a new doctor,” Dr. Chaklos said. “Within the past year or so, they’re finally allowing people to say, ‘Look, you cannot just pick and choose your doctor,’ based on arbitrary reasons that are discriminatory in nature.”
Emily Whitgob, MD, MEd, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif., said that, several years ago, a scenario unfolded that led her to study the issue. An intern she was overseeing told her that the father of a pediatric patient had scrutinized the intern’s name tag and said, “Is that a Jewish last name? I don’t want a Jewish doctor.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” Dr. Whitgob said. Later, she brought up the situation at a meeting of 30 staff members. It led to an outpouring of sharing about similar incidents that other clinicians had experienced but had never talked about with colleagues.
“Half the room, by the end, was in tears talking about their experiences,” Dr. Whitgob said.
Since then, she has led research into how physicians typically handle such situations, performing semistructured interviews to survey pediatricians about their experiences with patients who discriminate on racial and ethnic grounds.
One important step, she said, is assessing the acuity of the illness involved to help determine whether the transfer of a patient from one provider to another should even be considered. In a dire situation, or when the physician involved is the foremost expert on a given condition, it might not be realistic.
Dr. Whitgob said some clinicians advocated cultivating a kind of alliance with the parents of pediatric patients, informing them that they’re part of a team that interacts with many types of providers, and redirecting them to focus on their child’s care.
“This takes time, and in a busy setting, that might not happen,” she acknowledged.
Physicians surveyed also said they try to depersonalize the uncomfortable encounter, remembering that discrimination is often motivated by a patient’s fears and a lack of control.
An important consideration, researchers found, was ensuring a safe learning environment for trainees, telling patients they would trust the physician with the care of their own children, escalating a complaint to hospital administration when appropriate, and empowering trainees to choose the next step in a situation.
Dr. Whitgob said that handling a reassignment request based on discriminatory sentiments is not as easy as “calling out ‘Code Bigotry.’ ”
“It’s not that simple,” Dr. Whitgob said. “There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all or even a one-size-fits-most solution. Each case is an individual case.”