February 12, 2017-- As the moderator of a recent panel discussion at Georgetown, Erica McClaskey, MD, MS, FAAFP, shared a frustrating observation about how she is perceived when she walks into a store.
“For some reason when I walk into a Target, I am seen as an authority figure on whether the store is hiring or where the dress rooms are. People think I know what I’m talking about,” McClaskey said. “So how come when I actually do know what I’m talking about, in the medical field, people assume that I don’t?”
The panel discussion was part of “What A Doc Looks Like,” an event organized in response to an incident that took place on an airplane last October. Tamika Cross, MD, a Houston OB-GYN and a black woman, was stopped by a flight attendant who would not allow her to aid a passenger in need because she did not “fit the description of a doctor.”
Intended to address the barriers that marginalized people encounter within the medical community, the February 8 event was sponsored by Georgetown's Martin Luther King Jr. “Let Freedom Ring!” initiative and organized by Georgetown's Student National Medical Association (SNMA) and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
Facing Identity Challenges
“It never occurred to me that someone would look at me and think that I wasn’t a doctor because growing up, it was all that I wanted to do with my life,” said Megha Shah Fitzpatrick, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at Georgetown. “So when I entered the profession of medicine and people didn’t see me that way, it was shocking.”
Panelists described being perceived as “less than” because of their age, gender, race or sexual orientation. Stories ranged from being called “sweetie” and “love” in the hospital elevator to being told by supposed mentors that they couldn’t pursue their dreams because of their race.
“The challenge isn’t so much about dealing with the person who marginalizes me, but figuring out how to refocus myself,” said Asante Dickson, MD, (M’00) diagnostic radiology specialist at Washington Adventist Hospital. “How do you keep your head up, how do you reinforce to yourself that you can do what you’re here to do.”
Sometimes the challenge isn’t about a specific negative interaction, but being the only minority in the room.
“I was the only black resident at George Washington in 1986,” said Yolanda Haywood, MD, associate dean for diversity, inclusion and student affairs at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “I was intimidated by that. I wrestled with my own self identity.”
Panelists identified steps that institutions and individuals can take to move toward a more equitable field.
“For medical schools, I think it’s very important to continue to hold events like this and create places where people are comfortable engaging in these discussions and sharing their views,” said Fitzpatrick.
Community members that want to support their colleagues also got advice about what they could do to move toward parity.
“I think it is incumbent upon people who are not members of marginalized groups to be the voice when they see injustice, because frankly, we get tired of always having to speak up,” said Haywood.
Unconscious biases, and the inherent difficulty involved in uncovering them, was also discussed.
“For medical students, and the next generation, the challenge is going to be to you to help us figure out how to overcome unconscious bias in medicine. Because I don’t think we have the answer yet,” said Haywood.
"What a Doc Looks Like” was co-sponsored by Georgetown’s American Medical Women's Association, Arts and Medicine, Hoya MedAlliance, DACA and Undocumented Student Awareness Club, and the Medical Muslim Student Association. SNMA chapters at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and Howard University College of Medicine also sponsored the event.
Leigh Ann Sham