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Nearly half of US health care workers have observed racism in the workplace

52% say discrimination against patients based on race or ethnicity is a major problem

People march during the Health Care Justice demonstration rally in Chicago, Saturday, June 27, 2020.
Health care workers at a rally for social justice in health care in June 2020 in Chicago.Nam Y. Huh (AP)
Macarena Vidal Liy

Nearly half of health care workers in the United States have witnessed discrimination against minority patients at the medical centers and hospitals where they work, according to a report released on Thursday by the Commonwealth Fund and the Afro-American Research Collaborative. The research says that employees at health care facilities with a high percentage of Black or Latino patients witnessed higher rates of racism, and it finds that 52% say racism against patients is a major crisis or problem.

Black, Latino and younger workers are more likely to report witnessing such an incident than older workers and whites. The report, “Revealing Disparities: Health Care Workers’ Observations of Discrimination Against Patients,” is based on a survey of over 3,000 health care workers — including physicians, nurses and dentists — across the United States. It seeks to understand the effect of discrimination on health care professionals and their patients.

In hospitals with a majority of Black patients, 70% of workers reported seeing discrimination against patients because of their race or ethnicity. At facilities with a majority of Latino patients, the rate was 61%. But if the center had a majority of white patients, the percentage dropped to 43%. Nearly half, 48%, believe that medical providers are more tolerant when white patients talk about their cases and make demands than when Black patients do the same.

The report notes that racism also extends to how workers themselves are treated. Forty-four percent of these workers say they have observed one of their colleagues being discriminated against. The majority of Black professionals (58%) and more than four in ten Latinos (49%) and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI, 44%) say they have been discriminated against at work because of their race or ethnicity.

Although most health care workers see positive efforts by employers to address discrimination, most Black, Latino and AAPI health care workers are concerned about retaliation if they report discrimination problems.

The report recommends a number of steps to address discrimination, from creating a system for reporting discrimination anonymously to including training to identify racism in professional development courses. “Understanding what health care workers experience, and what they want and need from their employers and colleagues to take action against discrimination, is critical to successful and sustainable change,” said Laurie Zephyrin, the executive vice president of the Commonwealth Fund’s Advancing Health Equity program and a co-author of the study.

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