Zero tolerance for patient bias: Too harsh? Clinicians respond


If a patient refuses care from a health care practitioner because of their race or sex, should their request be accommodated?

In a recent blog on Medscape titled “No, You Can’t See a Different Doctor: We Need Zero Tolerance of Patient Bias,” Cleveland Francis Jr., MD, argued no.

Dr. Francis, who is Black, is a recently retired cardiologist who practiced for 50 years. He is currently Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisor at Inova Heart and Vascular Institute in Falls Church, Va.

When Francis was a medical student and was preparing to take a patient’s history and perform a medical exam, the patient refused and requested a “White doctor,” he recounted.

“I can remember the hurt and embarrassment as if it were yesterday,” he wrote.

The blog, especially the title, drew strong reactions. Close to 500 readers weighed in.

“The title of my blog sounds harsh,” Dr. Francis said, “but in reality, a simple conversation with the patient usually resolves these issues. The difference is that in the old days, there was utter silence, and the wishes of the patient would be granted”

Health care practitioners “should expect to be treated with respect,” he concluded his blog.

Readers agreed on that point, but they debated whether being uncomfortable with a health care practitioner of a different sex or race always constituted “patient bias.”

Some noted that difficulty understanding a practitioner’s accent, for example, is a legitimate reason for asking for another clinician.

Accents and understanding

“If I am struggling to understand you because your accent is too thick or ... because hearing aids can only do so much, I need to ask for someone else,” a reader commented.

Another chimed in: “My elderly parents changed PCPs frequently during the final years of their lives, mainly due to language barriers encountered with foreign-born providers. Due to progressive hearing loss, they simply couldn’t understand them.”

“It is important to remember that there is a Patient Bill of Rights,” she noted, “the first part of which states, ‘You have the right to safe, considerate, and respectful care, provided in a manner consistent with your beliefs.’ ”

A former charge nurse added: “If a request for change was substantive (poor communication, perceived incompetence, trauma history, etc.), I would move mountains to accommodate it, but IMHO [in my humble opinion], the belief in honoring patient preference doesn’t necessarily need to include rearranging the world in order to accommodate racism, sexism, etc.”

Bias against female doctors, male nurses

Many commenters described how they gladly traded when a patient requested a practitioner of the opposite sex.

A female hospitalist related how she contacted the senior male doctor working with her to arrange a patient trade, adding, “I do agree that racial discrimination ought to be discouraged.”

Similarly, a male ICU RN commented: “Over 13 years, I have had a handful of female (usually older) patients request a female nurse. I have always strived to make this happen.”

However, an older woman related how at first she “had some bias against a male nurse touching me and also felt self-conscious,” she said. “So, I tried to relax ... and let him do his job. He was one of the most compassionate, kind, and sensitive nurses I’ve ever had.”

“I think in some cases,” she noted, “some women have had a history of some sort of abuse by a male, whether it’s sexual or psychological,” but in other cases, “it’s often just a personal preference, not a bias.”

A physician assistant (PA) who worked in a rural ED recounted how “there was only one physician and one PA on at any given evening/night shift, both usually White males.”

“Sometimes, you just have to cope as best you can with whomever is available, and in doing so,” he said, “they might just end up being pleasantly surprised.”


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