B. The Limits of Accommodation
Although the accommodation of patients' racial preferences appears to confer significant benefits to patients of all races, we may still be troubled by the difficulty of distinguishing between legitimate expressions of racial preference for physician race concordance and those based in racism or bigotry. Undoubtedly, there are many reasons why patients may request or decline treatment by physicians of a particular racial or ethnic background. These reasons include positive prior experiences in racially concordant relationships, negative past experiences with physician bias in racially disconcordant relationship, and racism--namely, bigotry or prejudices about members of certain racial and ethnic groups other than one's own.
Patients who have had positive experiences with people of the same racial or cultural background may be more trusting of and feel more comfortable with physicians who share their racial or cultural characteristics. This sense of sharing a common culture or social experience may also lead patients to believe (rightly or wrongly) that a physician of a similar racial group is more likely to promote and protect their interests and to exercise more sensitive care with regard to treatment.
Negative experiences may also drive a patient toward rejecting or requesting a physician of a particular racial background, as preferences may be shaped by lingering distrust resulting from one's own or others' prior experiences of racial bias, discrimination, or discourteous or substandard care. While segregation and blatant racial discrimination are no longer the norm in medicine, numerous studies report that more subtle forms of discrimination endure. Although most patients are sensitive to the interpersonal dynamic that occurs in medical encounters, black patients may be acutely aware of interpersonal cues from physicians because of historical and personal experiences with discrimination in healthcare and in society at large. Research on racial stigma suggests that individuals cope with the threat of bias or discrimination by avoiding interactions with the stigmatizing group. Thus, to avoid negative encounters, racial minorities (who are more likely to experience discrimination while seeking health services) may prefer physician-patient racial concordance or reject physicians who are members of a perceived stigmatizing group.
Finally, a patient's request for or refusal of treatment by a physician of a particular race may also be a manifestation of racism. For example, during the period of legally sanctioned segregation, many white professionals and the lay public openly expressed the belief that the medical care provided by black physicians was necessarily of poor quality.
The source of patients' racial preferences with respect to their choice of physicians should play a part in determining appropriate policy solutions. Standard medical practice requires those who express these preferences to undergo an ethics consultation to determine not only the strength of their conviction but also to impress on the patient the advantages of working with the assigned physician. Yet in a life-threatening situation or when the patient has no alternate venue for medical care, is firm in her decision, and cannot be deterred; EMTALA, battery, and medical ethics rules counsel that the patient's preferences be respected.
Still, the notion of white patients rejecting minority physicians for bigoted reasons in emergency departments and other hospital settings is deeply troubling and uncomfortably reminiscent of the type of discrimination that the civil rights statutes were designed to eliminate. This concern complicates emergency department physicians' duty to provide necessary treatment and their efforts to uphold their promise under the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. It also underscores a fundamental tension between their roles as healers and as conservators of widely shared moral precepts.
The reality, however, is that this problem may seldom arise, as a recent study found that requests for treatment by a physician of a particular race are most often accommodated when made by racial minority patients. This practice may be justified to the extent that racial and ethnic minority patients are statistically more likely than white patients to experience discriminatory treatment in a racially disconcordant physician-patient encounter. Moreover, the chance of experiencing such discriminatory treatment is heightened in the hospital environment, which is “ripe for misunderstandings, stereotyping, and poor collaboration,” as physicians who work in hospital emergency departments are often fatigued and must operate under significant time constraints. Research indicates that individuals often rely on unconscious biases and stereotyping in such circumstances as these cognitive processes allow individuals to evaluate complex information quickly through the use of social categories. The negative consequences of this behavior are likely to have a disproportionate effect on blacks and Latinos.
None of this is to suggest that we should not remain concerned about racist motives among patients. Nevertheless, substantial empirical data attests to the medical significance and benefits of accommodating patients' racial preferences, and to the extent that evidence shows unequivocally that it improves health outcomes and may contribute to the reduction of race-based health disparities, then we should respect patients' racial preferences in the hospital context.