Discrimination In Health Care Continues. Here’s What Needs To Change

Racist treatment of patients of color negatively affects health outcomes, and increases stress levels for health care workers of color. (Credit: The Good Brigade via Getty Images. Credit: Getty Images)

by Anissa Durham

Older generations of healthcare workers are less likely to say discrimination against patients is a serious problem, a new Commonwealth Fund report found. In the report, researchers surveyed 3,000 health care workers, including nurses, doctors, dentists, medical assistants, mental health workers, and several others.  

Black and Latino healthcare workers were more likely to say discrimination against patients based on race, ethnicity, or language is a serious problem that impacts patient care and their own mental health. Younger health care workers and workers of color said they witnessed discrimination against patients more often than white healthcare workers. 

Why this matters: Discrimination against patients in health care settings continues to negatively impact their quality of care and health outcomes — with Black and brown patients most at risk. 

Unfortunately, this is not new. 

The quality of treatment for Black patients living with sickle cell disease differed by age, previous reporting by Word In Black found. Pediatric patients were treated with more compassion, whereas adult patients were often discriminated against and seen as seeking drugs instead of seeking care for pain management. 

Source: Commonwealth Fund • Graphic by Anissa Durham African American Research Collaborative survey of health care workers, March 14 to April 5, 2023. 3,000 adults surveyed and six focus groups.
  • A staggering 64% of all health care workers between the ages of 18-29 say they have witnessed discrimination against patients — whereas only 25% of all health care workers 60 and older say they have witnessed discrimination against patients. 
  • Nearly 60% of all health care workers agreed that patients who speak Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Creole, or other languages besides English may not always receive equal quality treatment from health care providers compared to English-speaking patients.  
  • Latino and Black health care workers experienced the most stress from dealing with racism or discrimination in health care settings. 

Nearly 70% of Black health care workers said medical providers are more accepting of white patients advocating for themselves than Black patients doing so.  

Source: Commonwealth Fund • African American Research Collaborative survey of health care workers, March 14 to April 5, 2023. 3,000 adults surveyed and six focus groups. Graphic by Anissa Durham

Solutions: Researchers tested multiple strategies to see which of them would be most effective at decreasing discrimination based on race or ethnicity in health care. Here’s what health care workers said would be most effective.  

  • Leaders of health care systems need to create simple ways for their workers and patients to report situations of discrimination or racism. 
  • Health care organizations’ management and leaders should regularly review their policies and procedures to create more equitable health outcomes and treatment for patients and workers.  
  • Health care workers at every level should receive training to recognize discrimination and bias within health care interaction and be taught how poor treatment leads to poor health outcomes. 

Bottom line: There’s too much at stake not to recognize or continue to perpetuate racist and discriminatory behavior towards patients of color. Younger health care workers are more aware of discriminatory treatment, but the toll it takes contributes to the health care workforce shortage. Patients of color deserve fair and equitable treatment, and health care workers of color deserve the same.