Case study on responding to racism from a patient's carer

Core medical trainee, Acute Medicine, England

What happened

While working in the ambulatory care unit, I was asked by a nurse to see a patient who had waited a long time to be seen. The patient was accompanied by a carer who was frustrated about the length of time they’d waited. 

I called the patient in to the clinical room for a consultation, at which point the patient’s carer asked my age and where I’d qualified. I responded vaguely, confirming that I was ‘old enough’ and shared the UK medical school where I qualified. The carer remained dissatisfied. They then pushed me to share where I was from and when I explained that I was from London, they rolled their eyes and asked me where my parents were born as I did not appear ‘British’.

I excused myself from the clinical room and explained to the patient and carer that I needed to discuss the case with a senior. I found a medical consultant who took the notes from my hand immediately, confirmed I didn’t need to continue with the consultation and told me to have a break. 

Following this, the consultant treated the patient and told the carer that their behaviour was unacceptable. The consultant then came to find me and reassured me that what I had experienced was awful and that they were sorry.

Impact

I froze because although medical school and post-graduate training had prepared me to deal with urgent and complex medical scenarios, it had not prepared me to deal with racism. 

I also felt embarrassed because I realised, I had no BME colleagues in the unit I was working in. I was worried that if I flagged it to a supervisor, no one would understand the impact it had. I feared I was ‘making a fuss’. 

The way my consultant responded immediately eased that and I’m very grateful that was the case. I think another response would have changed the way I viewed the team I worked with daily, as I wouldn’t feel as much a part of it.

My takeaways

  • Following up with a colleague recognises the impact of racist behaviour.
  • Explain to patients – or their guardians – that racist behaviour is unacceptable.
  • Addressing racism from patients reduces the chances that others will be subjected to this behaviour at work. 

What the GMC says

Doctors with extra responsibilities must actively advance equality and diversity by creating or maintaining a positive working environment free from discrimination, bullying and harassment. They must make sure that their organisation’s policies on employment and equality and diversity are up to date and reflect the law.

(Leadership and management for all doctors, paragraph 9).