The doctor Won’t See You Now (Al Jazeera America, July 3, 2014)

Patients in American hospitals often get away with asking for caregivers based on race

Patients in American hospitals often get away with asking for caregivers based on race

Tonya Battle had been working as a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan, for 24 years. Her employment record was spotless — by all accounts she was one of the most knowledgeable and capable care providers on the NICU floor. Even so, it wasn’t so surprising when, in the fall of 2012, one infant’s father asked to speak to Battle’s supervisor: Health is extremely personal, and no matter how skilled a health care provider, there will be times when communication with a patient breaks down. It’s common for a patient to ask for another doctor or another nurse.

What was shocking, however, was the note posted on the department assignment clipboard the next day: “NO AFRICAN AMERICAN NURSE TO TAKE CARE OF BABY.”

Here’s how the incident unfolded, according to allegations made by Battle in a lawsuit that followed: After she had finished her shift the day before, the father had come to the charge nurse (Battle’s supervisor) demanding that no black nurses attend to his (very sick) infant girl. To punctuate his point, he rolled up his sleeve to show off a swastika tattoo. The charge nurse, Deborah Herholz, then called her boss, the nurse manager Mary Osika, to ask what she should do. Osika said to reassign the baby to another nurse.

A staff meeting followed, in which the NICU nurses were told that Hurley Medical Center had decided not to allow any African-American employees to take care of this particular baby. The note was posted on the assignment clipboard for everyone to see.

The next day, Osika called Battle at home to inform her that the father’s request would be granted. Later that day, Battle reported to work, where one of her co-workers showed her a photo of the offensive note (which had since been removed).

Battle would go on to sue Hurley Medical Center for employment discrimination, settling out of court for an undisclosed amount, and with Hurley agreeing to hire an “employee advocate” whose role would be to forestall similar misadventures in the future.

It’s unclear how common these types of experiences are; there have been no major studies on the issue, so advocates and policymakers have had to rely on anecdotal evidence, the few isolated stories that leak out of the hospital wing and into the press. But many believe Hurley represents the norm and not the exception — that discrimination of this kind is endemic to the health care system.

Read the rest at Al Jazeera America: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/3/the-doctor-won-tseeyounow.html

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