Health & Science

Here’s how to protect yourself from medical discrimination

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April 11 through 17 is Black Maternal Health Week—a week of education, activism, and community-building that shines a light on the pervasive racial and gender-based inequities in the healthcare system and the impact those inequities have on Black maternal health. 

In the United States, Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women—and more than 80 percent of those pregnancy-related deaths are preventable. Studies have also found that Black patients are less likely to receive appropriate pain medication than white patients. In fact, twice as many Black patients who’d given birth in the last decade said they’d been refused pain medications they thought they needed, compared to white patients who had given birth. This discrepancy is in part because of medical discrimination. 

What is medical discrimination?

Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, just like everyone else, can have personal biases such as racial prejudice and misogyny. If those biases are strong enough, they can cause healthcare workers to view and treat their patients differently based on their race, gender, or other identities. Repeated experiences of discrimination in healthcare can cause patients to avoid or put off check-ups and medical treatments, which in turn can cause a host of other health issues.

Here’s what medical discrimination might look like— 

  • Your concerns are not being taken seriously; 
  • Your questions are not being answered satisfactorily;
  • Your symptoms are not treated as thoroughly as other patients at the same practice;
  • You aren’t being involved in decisions about your care;
  • You are treated disrespectfully, or are clearly treated differently than patients with other identities.

What should I do if I experience medical discrimination?

If you think you’ve experienced medical discrimination, there are several steps you can take, depending on the severity or frequency of the discrimination you’ve experienced—

  • Draft your complaint. Even if you plan to share your experiences verbally, it can help to think through what you want to say. You should keep your message concise and clear, sharing only the facts of what happened and how you were impacted. Then, make a clear statement of what action you would like to be taken to address your concerns.
  • Make a complaint to your healthcare provider. As a first step, you may want to let the healthcare provider know you experienced mistreatment under their care. Document your complaint, when the incident occurred, and who you spoke to about it.
  • Contact local organizations and institutions. If you feel that you should further escalate your concerns about medical discrimination, reach out to your local health department, or division of human rights. You can also get in touch with your state’s medical board or your elected officials. For each conversation you have, make sure to keep track of who you talked to, when you called, and what you talked about.
  • File an official complaint with the federal government. To take further steps to address your concerns, you can file an official complaint with the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Consult with a lawyer. Try a free consultation session with at least two attorneys to see what your options are for legal recourse. They can help you figure out whether you may have a legal case involving medical discrimination or medical malpractice.

How can I protect myself from medical discrimination?

While discrimination in healthcare remains widespread, there are several ways you can protect yourself and advocate for yourself at the doctor’s office. Here are some tips for protecting yourself from medical discrimination—

  • Bring a support person. Whenever possible, bring a trusted friend or adult family member with you to your appointments. Having someone there to amplify your voice and provide support can make a big difference.
  • Ask for a second opinion, or change doctors. If you feel worried that your medical concerns aren’t being taken seriously, don’t hesitate to ask for a referral, or find a new doctor to meet with.
  • Don’t feel pressured to make medical decisions. If you can, take some space to think about what you want out of your medical care. If you feel that you’re being pressured to make a choice too quickly or without all the information you need, ask for more time. Taking notes during your visit can be a helpful way to remember everything.
  • Get a doula. If you’re pregnant, connecting with a doula can be a huge support during your pregnancy, labor, delivery, and postpartum period. Doulas are trained birthing coaches and advocates, and they can greatly improve birthing outcomes. They can advocate for you in a medical setting, and provide knowledge and experience to help you make informed decisions about your labor and delivery.
  • Take birthing classes. A birthing class can help you prepare for labor and delivery by walking you through what to expect, and some strategies for managing your stress, pain, and the logistics of bringing a new baby into the world. Feeling prepared will help you make more informed decisions in the moment, and feel more confidence in advocating for yourself and your birth plan.
  • Learn the signs of a medical emergency. If you feel strongly that something is seriously wrong, go to the emergency room or call 911. Get familiar with major signs and symptoms of medical emergencies. In the case of pregnancy, some signs of a medical emergency include:
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Chest pain
    • Racing heartbeat
    • Persistent belly pain
    • Persistent pain under the right breast
    • Persistent headache
    • Heavy vaginal bleeding
    • Feeling less movement from the baby
    • Visual disturbances, such as flashes of light, dark spots or loss of vision

Being informed, prepared, and tapping into your support network are a few key ways to protect yourself from medical discrimination. There are also lots of great organizations like Black Mamas Matter Alliance working to put an end to discrimination in healthcare, and they can connect you with lots of other resources that may be helpful to you.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.