Why Can't I Get Equal Treatment? I'm Sick!
While we trust our doctors to treat everyone equally and address all concerns, this does not always occur. Physicians are challenged by implicit bias. This creates a dangerous clinical environment across demographic characteristics, and sometimes leads to disease and death.
For instance, during my senior year of college, I suddenly found myself extremely ill with no prior warning or symptoms. I went from feeling completely fine to running a 105° fever in a matter of hours with no idea what to make of it. Eventually I had gone to the hospital whose staff told me they did not know what, precisely, was the matter with me and simply advised me to eat a banana, as my potassium levels were low. As my symptoms stayed the same, and now with pain in my lower left back - which is often indicative of kidney problems. After returning home, I immediately scheduled an appointment at my usual doctor’s office, though due to the timing I was unable to see my doctor, but rather her husband, who also worked at the same practice, for my appointment. My two sisters both informed me that they had less than pleasant experiences with the male doctor, but I had hoped that he would be just as attentive and kind as his wife was.
However, I soon realized that I was not spared from his unpleasantness. It was clear this physician was the personal engagement type. As soon as I walked into the examination room, without a single introduction, he was belittling me and asking, what I perceived to be, asinine questions, such as “do you normally breathe through your mouth or nose?” and when I answered “I’m not sure, I guess I switch between them,” he mockingly replied that everyone does that. I sat there as he more or less ignored my questions and concerns; I was particularly worried about the pain in my lower left back, and had asked him if it were possible to run a urine test, just to be safe. When I asked, he openly scoffed and said I must have just pulled a muscle coughing. However, I did not relent and asked him multiple times for the test and eventually he did write a doctor’s note for me to bring to a lab. Luckily for me, there was no problem with my kidneys, but I did find that I had a problem with getting my own doctor to listen to me pertaining to my concerns about my own body.
While implicit bias negatively impacts all women, we cannot ignore the impact implicit bias specifically has on women of color. According to the CDC (2020), black and indigenous women are two to three times more likely to die from causes related to pregnancy than white women. Black women often find that their concerns are minimized or outright ignored, as reported by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance. This minimization is linked to racism. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (2020) about 40% of white medical students believe in racist notions such as black people having less sensitive nerve endings or thicker skin than white people. As such, there are huge discrepancies in pain management in white patients and black patients. In fact, Black patients were less likely to receive any pain medication than white patients. Even as patients, people of color are assumed to be drug addicts.
We live in a world that is often ruled by implicit biases, which extends to the realm of healthcare. Too often women find themselves ignored or belittled by their physicians which, in the worst case scenario, can lead to their death. We all need to do better, to check our biases and to do everything we can to create a safer, more inclusive environment for everyone. It is difficult to be rid of our biases, especially ones that have been hammered into our heads by media, society, and even educational systems, but by doing so we can ensure that no person goes without adequate care.