Black doctors in US say they face discrimination based on race
Experts and advocates say Black doctors across the United States commonly experience discrimination, ranging from microaggressions to career-threatening disciplinary actions, The Associated Press said in a report.
Biases, conscious or not, can become magnified in the fiercely competitive hospital environment, and the underrepresentation of Black doctors can discourage them from speaking up, the AP report said.
Dr. Dare Adewumi was thrilled when he was hired to lead the neurosurgery practice at a hospital located at a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, near where he grew up. But he says he quickly faced racial discrimination that ultimately led to his firing and has prevented him from getting permanent work elsewhere.
“Too many of us are worried about retaliation, what happens when you say something," said Dr. Rachel Villanueva, president of the National Medical Association, which represents Black doctors. “We have scores of doctors that are sending us letters about these same discriminatory practices all the time and seeking our help as an association in fighting that.”
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, Black doctors made up just 5% of active physicians in the U.S. in 2018, the most recent data available.
People who identify as Black alone represent 12.4% of the total U.S. population, according to the 2020 U.S. census. For the 2021-2022 academic year, 8.1% of students enrolled in medical schools identified as Black alone.
The medical school association and the National Medical Association in 2020 announced an initiative to address the scarcity of Black men in medicine — they made up only 2.9% of 2019-2020 enrolled students.
Some Black doctors who believe they've been mistreated are speaking out. Adewumi, 39, filed a federal lawsuit in September against Wellstar Medical Group and Wellstar Health Systems alleging employment discrimination based on race.
“If they don’t like him, that’s one thing, but you can’t penalize someone — according to the law — based on race,” his lawyer C.K. Hoffler said. “And that’s the exact thing that happened to Dare. And that’s what many, many highly skilled, highly trained, highly credentialed African American doctors are experiencing in this country.”
Adewumi said some of his surgical decisions were questioned and he was placed on a performance review plan, steps he says were a pretext to push him out. He said he had a previously unblemished record and his white colleagues didn’t face similar scrutiny.
“I’ve worked so hard, done so much to get to this level, and all I really wanted to do was help sick people,” he said. “And here I was having this taken away from me for no reason other than my skin color.”
William Hill, an attorney for Wellstar, said the case is sealed so he's unable to speak about specifics.
“Wellstar does not discriminate. Dr. Adewumi has not been the subject of discrimination or unfair treatment. Patient care and safety are Wellstar's top priorities,” Hill wrote in an email, noting that they have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
A judge sealed Adewumi's lawsuit and some filings in the case at the request of Wellstar, which cited confidential information. The following account of what happened comes from an interview with Adewumi and a complaint he filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which in July granted him permission to sue.
Adewumi signed on in March 2018 to lead neurosurgery services at Wellstar Cobb Hospital in Austell, Georgia. The hospital hadn't had a neurosurgeon for a decade and referred patients elsewhere, including Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, where Adewumi's supervisor worked.
As his practice started to flourish, Adewumi felt his supervisor was targeting him “with the intention of undermining my skill as a physician and pushing me out of the group,” the EEOC complaint says.
In November 2018, Adewumi began receiving “letters of inquiry" about surgeries he'd done. These anonymous letters can be submitted by any member of the medical staff or be triggered by a patient complaint. They're reviewed by the hospital's medical executive committee.
At first, Adewumi said, he didn't know what the letters were, having never received anything similar. But within eight months, he had received 15, all but one filed by colleagues.
Separate independent reviews requested by the hospital and by Adewumi's lawyers found that concerns stemmed from differences in opinion about the approach or surgical technique, not patient care standards or safety, according to the EEOC complaint.
In contrast, Adewumi said, he's aware of at least two cases where white colleagues performed surgeries that were unnecessary or left a patient disfigured. He doesn't believe they received letters of inquiry or were disciplined in any way.
After trying unsuccessfully to mend the relationship with his supervisor, Adewumi said he went up the chain to raise concerns and a hospital system executive suggested it might be better if he resigned. Floored by the suggestion, Adewumi refused to quit.
Wellstar then proposed an “action plan.” It wasn't meant to be punitive but would help “better integrate” him into the main group of neurosurgeons at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, he was told.
Several Black doctors in Georgia and elsewhere who spoke to The Associated Press said the hierarchy and competition in hospitals, where surgeons are evaluated and compensated based on productivity, can lead to people being targeted if they aren’t liked or are perceived as professional threats. Racial bias can compound that, they said.
Adewumi suspects that's what happened to him. Before arriving at Wellstar, he'd done two fellowships on spine and brain tumors, learning difficult techniques that others within the neurosurgery group couldn't do. Additionally, his presence at Wellstar Cobb meant lucrative surgeries were no longer being referred to his colleagues at Wellstar Kennestone.