As a doctor working in the NHS, I have always believed that I was protected. I live in a nation that advocates fairness and equality. Ahead of the world, we represent diversity. We are lawful and welcoming to all walks of life… or are we?Recent developments within our medical community have sent shivers down our spines. Our states of mind shaken, our stomachs lurching with anxiety inducing a painful insomnia as we ruminate over our fate.
Born and brought up in Scotland, this is my home. The colour of my skin is brown which when paired with a distinctive Glaswegian accent tends to generate some curiosity in the minds of my patients. A question I’ve sometimes been asked is: ‘Where are you from, doctor?’ My reply of ‘Glasgow’ is seldom sufficient and is usually followed by, ‘but where are you actually from?’ This question does not offend me because curiosity is intuitive and should be welcomed. If I can know personal things about my patients, it’s only fair they can know a bit about me.
It is, however, when curiosity becomes an interrogation, either in consultation or in the form of a complaint that I begin to feel a helpless panic come over me. The ‘coloured doctor’, as I have sometimes been referred to, is demeaning.
Experiencing racism from patients does not compare to the fear institutional racism generates within us
Amongst all the pressures faced by doctors in the UK today, racism – both covert and overt – is an additional stressor that black and minority ethnic (BME) doctors face on a daily basis.
But I must admit, as unnerving as it is to experience racism from patients, it does not compare to the level of fear institutional racism generates within us.
Around 30% of our NHS workforce has a BME background. This is not an insignificant number. We encourage the uptake of foreign doctors to help fill gaps in our grossly understaffed NHS, yet many happily turn a blind eye when these doctors face racial abuse, bullying, scapegoating and indeed criminalisation of their work.
In light of the case of Dr Bawa-Garba and reviewing the published data, I learnt that BME doctors are far more likely to get public warnings and restrictions to practice compared with their Caucasian counterparts. Thankfully I have never had to face a GMC investigation and, until now, I never doubted that the GMC could ever be anything other than fair.
However, as an Asian doctor, I now quiver at the realisation that our professional governing body apparently deems BME doctors to be less able and more culpable compared with Caucasian doctors when judging clinical errors and complaints.
It is widely recognised that outcomes of medical recruitment, exams and applications to specialties are more favourable for white than BME applicants. Forget the data, one simply needs to look at those in positions of influence in both undergraduate and postgraduate boards in medicine and we can see how embarrassingly misrepresented it is.
If as a British-born Indian doctor I feel like this, it makes me sick to think how those who have left their native countries to come and work tirelessly for our NHS must feel. For most such doctors, English is not their first language, and many have an accent. Western culture may be wildly different to what they know. They get judged for this, when it is their knowledge and expertise that should be judged and not how they dress, talk or act in a social setting.
In a time where travelling is the modern-day hobby, we travel the world to learn about cultural diversity, yet when doctors from such cultures come and work with us, institutional racism is shamefully letting them down.
For BME doctors, rejection by patients, colleagues and governing bodies due to racism and bigotry is contributing cumulatively to moral distress and clinical burnout.
I believe this is reversible if we start addressing it now. Let us all work together for the sake of our profession. Let us all work together without any judgement and let us all lead by example to create a tribe of incredible doctors and nurses who support and respect one another.
We are in a profession where we can influence society. Let us not give the media and public more ammunition because our work will always remain grounds for criticism and litigation.
Those at the top, the ‘snowy white peaks of the NHS’ and the GMC, need to recognise that the global climate is changing. It is time for drastic measures to be put in place to address institutional racism as a contributing factor to punishing doctors unfairly. Otherwise an avalanche will come down and bury the NHS and them with it.
Dr Punam Krishan is a GP in Glasgow