New York Times Columnist Discusses Barriers Faced by Minority PhysiciansNew York Times columnist and physician Pauline Chen in her latest "Doctor and Patient" column discusses racial disparities in health care. According to Chen, the election of Sen. Barack Obama as president indicates that in "politics, the racial barriers might have fallen, ... but what about in health care?" Research has shown that some patients have better health care experiences when their physicians are of the same race or ethnicity, according to Chen. She adds that "race and ethnicity also influence the experiences of minority physicians."
Chen, an Asian-American woman whose parents are Taiwanese immigrants, writes, "When working on consults with a white medical student or resident, I have watched physicians from other departments in the hospital look past me in order to speak to them. When preparing to operate on organ donor patients in other hospitals, I have had nurses and scrub technicians walk past me to help my assistants first, assuming that they were the lead surgeons."
Chen talked with Somnath Saha, an Oregon Health and Science University researcher and an expert in health disparities, about the issue. Saha said, "Obama's election really provides some hope for people who thought it was impossible. But his election doesn't automatically change what happens on the ground floor," adding, "We may forget that we still do look at certain racial and ethnic minorities in a different way -- not consciously but unconsciously" and the "first step in addressing [racial health] disparities is really acknowledging that certain things affect the way we deliver care -- our own stereotypes, our own cultural upbringing, our own 'anxiety meters' when we are interacting with people who aren't like the people we grew up with."
Chen writes, "I have prided myself on being as fair and as compassionate a doctor as I could be. [When] I see patients or colleagues who come from a similar background, empathy comes almost automatically. However, when I meet individuals whose race or ethnicity differs from mine -- individuals who, for instance, are black, white, Hispanic or American Indian -- there are fewer shared experiences."
She continues, "So I, like others, unconsciously tap into past experiences in order to bolster the connection and bring a greater sense of familiarity to the interaction. And it's difficult to acknowledge that what I have tapped into may not always be fair" (Chen, New York Times, 11/14). This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.