My patient made racist remarks about me. I did something about it
I’ve encountered racism since I was a junior doctor. We rarely talk about it, but it hurts like hell and damages the NHS
Every day doctors experience some form of abuse in the NHS yet we rarely talk about it. There’s lots of evidence of the racism we face: I’ve seen it, colleagues have told me about it, and last week I experienced it. This time, however, I decided to do something about it.
I am a GP in Glasgow and one day last week, a patient saw me walk out at reception. They approached the receptionist and said they wanted an appointment but not with an Asian doctor. My receptionist said: “She’s Scottish.” The patient replied: “She doesn’t look Scottish”, to which my receptionist asked: “What do Scottish people look like?” I didn’t hear the conversation but my receptionist told me about it afterwards.
My immediate feeling was one of sadness, but also of pride that I had never experienced before. I feel I belong here – I was born and brought up in Glasgow – but I’ve never really had a white person who is “native to Scotland” stand up and make me feel that I was an equal.
I decided to talk about it. It’s important that people are made aware that these attitudes exist in Britain today. I hoped that if I could speak up and raise awareness, it might encourage other people to do the same and share stories where people haven’t been the bystander. I decided to send a tweet.
Dr Punam Krishan (@DrPunamKrishan)
Patient “I don’t want an Asian doctor”
Receptionist “she is Scottish”
Patient “she doesn’t look Scottish.”
Receptionist “what do Scottish people look like?”
January 15, 2019The response has been overwhelming. The tweet has had 17,000 retweets, 95,000 likes and 2,400 comments so far. I’ve had countless emails and direct messages, and been approached for interviews with various media outlets. The vast majority of comments have been positive and I’ve been so pleased by the conversations that have been started. A minority of people have trolled me with personal abuse, but it has highlighted that there is a problem that needs to be addressed and that speaking up was the right thing to do.
A lot of the messages I received were from doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals telling me they had been inspired and that they feel hopeful about the future. They also shared some sad stories with me. A doctor from Australia sent me a message asking for help. He wants to restart his training after resigning from his junior doctor post because he had faced racial abuse at work. I’ve had emails from across the world – Colombia, Argentina, Ghana, Palestine, India, Canada and more. It’s made me think that globally we need to push the agenda of equality and diversity. We need to question the minority who still holds discriminatory views.
I also had responses from people closer to home, working in the NHS. One told me they remember being in a clinical exam in which the university had put forward an actor playing a patient who was racist. It made me think that there isn’t enough training on how to deal with racist patients (from all backgrounds – no one is immune). We are taught how to deal with angry or abusive individuals instead. I’ve had doctors get in touch to say they’ve had their names and the colour of their skin queried. There have been stories of people who have refused to be treated by black and minority ethnic doctors. In all these cases, the staff just stayed quiet and got on with their jobs. Many contacted me to say that I had given them courage to stop doing this and speak out instead.
I’ve encountered racism across the years. When I was a junior doctor, one of my colleagues was called “a ninja” by a nurse out in the waiting area. The nurse thought it was a joke but my colleague felt she couldn’t speak up, and I found her crying quietly in the doctors’ mess. When something like this happens, it hurts like hell. It’s also a wider issue: if we are exposed to bullying, harassment and racism, it impacts on the quality of care we provide, our mental wellbeing and ultimately leads to absenteeism and staff turnover.
It’s difficult to swallow because our job is to look at the whole human. We don’t judge. When people are on their last breath, they’re all the same. Two people suffering from cancer are still human beings going through the same processes. You can’t judge them because of the colour of their skin or the religion they follow. When we sign the hippocratic oath, we speak up to look after our patients and provide a duty of care. It’s never compromised. Patients are entitled to that, but it’s also their responsibility to give the same back to their healthcare professionals.