Penn State Health is based in Hershey, Pa., a city that tends to vote Democratic in local and national elections but is encircled by Republican-leaning counties. Dr. Polimera’s encounter with her patient’s daughter led to changes in the way the health system handles encounters like hers.
When Dr. Polimera explained the situation to physician leadership, she was asked whether she was still comfortable taking care of the patient, and she said yes. The physician leaders informed the family that they could not change providers simply because of ethnicity. But that was just the first step.
Ultimately, the health system undertook a survey of all its health care providers, to determine whether others had similar experiences with patients or families, and had to deal with rude comments or were rejected as caregivers based on their race, gender, or religion.
“The feedback we received was massive and detailed,” Dr. Polimera said.
Brian McGillen, MD, section chief of hospital medicine and associate professor in the department of medicine at Penn State Health, said physician leaders took the survey results to the dean’s executive council, a who’s-who of medical leadership at the health system.
“I read aloud to the executive council what our folks were facing out on the floors,” Dr. McGillen said. “And I was halfway through my third story when the dean threw his hands up in the air and said, ‘We have to do something.’ ”
As a result, the health system’s policy on patient responsibility was changed to protect all health care providers from threats, violence, disrespectful communication, or harassment by patients, families, and other visitors. Before the change, the policy covered only discriminatory acts by patients themselves.
Penn State Health is now embarking on a training program for faculty, residents, and students that uses simulations of common hospital encounters. The health system also is engaging its patient relations staff to help mediate patient reassignment requests, and is trying to increase real-time debriefing of these events to further improve awareness and training.
Dr. McGillen noted that researchers at the University of North Texas, using data from the Anti-Defamation League, found that counties in which President Trump held campaign rallies – such as Dauphin County, Pa., where Hershey is located – had a 226% increase in hate crimes in the months after the rallies.
“This isn’t to say that every county and every person in these counties that voted for Mr. Trump is racist, but we surely know that his campaign unlocked an undercurrent of political incorrectness that has existed for ages,” he said. “We had to do something as an organization.”
Adapting to change
While some health systems are acting to limit the harm caused by discrimination, there is still much awareness to be raised and work to be done on this issue nationally. Some hospitalists at the 2019 SHM Annual Conference said they suspect that discriminatory incidents involving patients are still so underreported that the C-suite leaders at their hospitals do not recognize how serious a problem it is. Attendees at the HM19 workshop said discriminatory behavior by patients could affect hospitalist turnover and lead to burnout.