Charlottesville Reminds Us: We Must End Racial Bias in Medicine and Society

Earlier this year ACOG issued a Statement of Policy, originated in our Committee for Underserved Women, which acknowledges the many ways that racial bias affects our patients and colleagues. In the document, ACOG calls on all physicians to work together to create an equitable health care system that serves all women.

Reflecting on the recent events in Charlottesville has been a chilling experience for many of us, and brought to mind the, fortunately, very few experiences in my career where I was faced with racial and gender bias. In the mid-1970s, when I was a third-year medical student on General Surgery, I was assigned the task of a physical examination on a patient admitted for radical surgery for breast cancer. The patient promptly announced that she would not be examined by me because of my race. While not totally surprised to be confronted with this encounter at a southern medical school, I was surprised that someone with a potentially fatal condition was more concerned about my race than her disease and the radical surgery she was about to face.

The chief of General Surgery, when informed, entered the patient’s room on rounds and explained that he would have to cancel her surgery because she declined to have a member of his team perform her pre-operative physical examination. He could have assigned her to another team member but chose not to and gave this patient a choice. She agreed and I was assigned as the primary point of contact throughout her postoperative care until discharge. How the chief handled this event reflected his moral and core values and had a profound effect on my professional development because it taught me how to handle racial and gender bias, which I, in turn, taught to my trainees over the past 35 years.

The hate and bigotry on display in Charlottesville reminds us that we still have a lot of work to do in medicine and in society when it comes to ending racial discrimination and gender bias. We must continue to challenge them wherever they exist and encourage diversity at all levels of our profession from medical school to residency to practice to leadership positions for the benefit of our patients and society. Additionally, how can we ever achieve gender equity without ensuring women’s right to control their own reproduction in the United States and globally? The two issues are intricately tied. There is no place for legislative interference in the ob-gyn-patient relationship.

Recently, I had the occasion to attend a 50th anniversary commemoration for the Sri Lanka College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, along with past presidents Thomas Gellhaus, M.D., and Jeanne Conry, M.D. The highlight of the meeting was an address by Lesley Regan, M.D., D.Sc., president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, on the impact of the global gag rule on women’s health care worldwide. ACOG has opposed this rule for many years. Regan quoted in her presentation from the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, “Women hold up half the sky.” She reminded us that in the 19th century we were confronted with abolition of slavery, in the 20th century racial discrimination, and in the 21st we must challenge gender inequity throughout the world.

I believe we, as obstetricians and gynecologists, must stand up against acts and policies that disadvantage women and show our patients that we will not tolerate any discrimination based on race, gender, color, national origin, disability, age, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, or any other basis. There is no neutral ground, and staying silent only supports their continuation and growth.