Hospitals push back against patient discrimination against caregivers: ‘I still remember the pain of that’

UW-Health, SSM Health, UnityPoint Health – Meriter implementing antidiscrimination policies

MADISON, Wis. – Healthcare workers are trained to help anyone who comes in for treatment, but they say sometimes patients won’t accept them because of the color of their skin.

Madison’s three major hospitals are all announcing their stance against patient discriminatory behavior as they adopt new policies.

“Even in 2020, we are still dealing with racism even in a place like the hospital,” said SSM hospitalist Dr. Debbie Jones. “I can honestly say it has gotten worse, which is the shocking part.”

One story that comes to Jones’s mind was six to seven years ago when a patient admitted through SSM’s emergency department tried to refuse her care when he found out she was a person of color.

“I want to help, so I agreed to. He had the stipulation that there would be a white nurse in that room at all times when I was there,” Jones said. “I still remember the pain of that.”

It’s not just her.

“There is not a single healthcare provider that I know of, personally, of color who has not had this happen to them,” Jones said.

“It’s probably the worst kept secret internally in healthcare,” SSM Health Wisconsin Regional President Damond Boatwright said, adding that these types of situations often go unreported.

SSM Health is putting new reporting mechanisms into place to encourage staff to speak up when they’re discriminated against and will soon begin tracking that data.

“Many of our frontline workers are risking their own lives and sharing their time to take care of other patients,” Boatwright said. “We feel this is the best time to stand up for them.”

SSM Health and UW-Health have adopted policies which prohibit discriminatory behavior against staff and won’t honor patient requests for alternate caregivers based on their own bias. UnityPoint Health-Meriter is working on a similar policy.

SSM will even organize a transfer for a patient refusing care, as long as they’re stable, Boatwright said.

“I’m moved beyond words,” Jones said. “If we talk about the race issue, it can get better.”

Jones has another story from her previous practice.

“The minute he got in the room, he wanted me to know he had never had a woman physician or a physician of color,” she said.

She helped him and sent him on his way, not expecting him to ever return when she suggested a follow-up appointment. But he did, and even brought his friends.

“When I left that practice, he was the first patient sitting out in the waiting room with tears in his eyes to say goodbye. He and I had grown so close over those five years,” Jones said. “That gives me hope that we will live to see a better day.”