Do Hospitals in Your Community Practice Racial Discrimination? It’s Not A Farfetched Question

In 2013 in one of the most progressive counties in the State of Florida, it is an “open secret” that racial and religious discrimination is practiced in many if not most area hospitals. Seems hard to believe, but when black or other minority hospital personnel report discrimination to management, they discover that a quiet, unpublicized policy allowing racial and religious discrimination exists. The policy can be found in what officials call a “hospital-wide directive.”

“How could this be,” you might wonder? Imagine a sign on a bassinet in the delivery room that reads: “No African American nurses to care for baby, per dad’s request.”

Paradoxically, this discrimination is justified as part of “patient rights.”

A front-page story about hospital discrimination designed to protect patient rights quoted administrators who defended the policy as necessary “to properly care for patients.” A black nurse, removed from a patient’s care, asked, “what about my rights?” The answer is her rights were subordinated by the administration of the hospital in order to go along with bigots who demanded that no black people participate in their care or treatment.

I found this amazing. In Mississippi or Alabama, I could believe it. Maybe Georgia, South Carolina or Texas-sure, this could happen. But Florida? Pinellas County? Quelle horror!

It brings to mind a comment by the late Christopher Hitchens in Hitch-22: A Memoir: “The one thing that the racist can never manage is anything like discrimination: he is indiscriminate by definition.”

How is it that some hospitals in Florida have unwritten policies that protect the rights of bigots to engage in racial discrimination or for reasons associated with religious beliefs? I’m not making this up- you can read the story of such “rights” in an article by Weston Phippen. The piece is entitled, “Hospitals Balance a Patient’s Request with a Fair Workplace” in the Tampa Bay Times of November 10, 2013.

One black nurse unwilling to subordinate her rights to those of a bigoted white patient filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination in the District Court in Tampa. Ms. Syrenthia Dysart claimed that at Palms of Pasadena Hospital of St. Petersburg, an “open secret” directive violated her right to a discrimination-free workplace. The case is pending. In Michigan, a similar case was settled out of court-after the hospital officials apologized, pledged to end the practice and paid the nurse $200,000.

While patients do have rights, such as to refuse medical care, to informed consent and to refuse care for whatever reason, the hospital and the staff who work there have rights, as well. A law professor cited in the Times story said that if a patient puts an undue burden on the hospital, the facility can advise a patient that it is unable to accommodate a discriminatory request. It can then arrange for the patient’s transfer to another facility, if the patient is able to be moved.

In a nationwide survey of 127 doctors by the University of Chicago, 20 percent reported having encountered “race – or religion – related demands from patients. Some studies found that accommodating racial prejudices can be beneficial to bigoted patients. A 2003 study cited in the Times account “showed that when a patient and physician are of the same race, on average the visits were more than two minutes longer and the patient was more satisfied with the care.”

I say “too bad”-better to have shorter visits and less patient satisfaction than to accommodate racial, religious or other prejudices. Perhaps better patient outcomes would also accompany increased tolerance if bigoted patients were given lessons in the rights of all people. Perhaps hospital Bill of Rights given to all patients upon entry should incorporate this observation by Jarod Kintz: “I accept all people-even the people I find unacceptable.” Let all patients know that they will be expected to do the same.

Good wishes and stay well.

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