Accomodating Racism in Hospitals

By Michele Goodwin

The Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan is being sued for accommodating the request made by a parent that no African Americans tend to his newborn. The father, who allegedly sported a swastika tattoo, alerted a nurse that blacks were not to care for his baby.

To comply with the father’s request, nurse Tonya Battle, who was caring for the child in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of the hospital was removed or reassigned from tending to the child.  A news video reporting on the incident can be found here. Battle is now suing the hospital.  According to her lawsuit, hospital staff complied with the father’s demand, posting a note next to the baby’s name on the assignment clipboard: “No African American nurse to take care of baby.”

Nurse Battle’s lawsuit claims that she was deeply shocked and offended–she’s worked for at the hospital for 25 years.  Professor Kimani Paul-Emile writes that such requests–based on race or ethnicity–are not unusual at U.S. hospitals and medical clinics.  See her article, Patients’ Racial Preferences and the Medical Culture of Accommodation, which is published in the U.C.L.A. Law Review here.  However, such instances of using racial preferences in the medical setting raise questions about the permissibility of such practices–not only as a legal matter, but also as matters of health and bioethics.  Some patients believe that the quality of their care is enhanced when provided by someone represented by their ethnic group; some even fear that their healthcare is compromised when delivered by medical staff outside of their ethnic group.  Should the law tolerate these forms of discrimination?  What about if racial perceptions have a positive placebo effect?  Post a comment.

Michele Goodwin

Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a renowned scholar, advocate, and author who has devoted her career to uplifting the voices, social conditions, and rights of women and children around the globe. A widely cited legal authority in constitutional law, health law, and women’s rights, her writings have been consulted by courts, legislators, government agencies, and civil society organizations. She has advised or given testimony before Congress and state governments as well as the United States’ Uniform Law Commission on privacy, the regulation of the human body, and reproductive health.

6 thoughts to “Accomodating Racism in Hospitals”

  1. Completely and utterly awful. It’s one thing to “discriminate” against your doctor because you think it will impact your care (e.g., some women seek out only female OB/GYNs based on their own comfort level in such an intimate setting, not because they have something against male OB/GYNs). But it’s quite another to discriminate against a doctor/care provider because of some view that her personal characteristics somehow make her inferior, separate and apart from her skills and abilities. While I can understand wanting to make life easier for any parent with a baby in intensive care, health care institutions should not accede to any requests of this nature – giving in demeans health care staff and legitimates unacceptable social perspectives. Requests for a different provider based on substantiated worries of incompetence, personality conflicts, and the like ought to be accommodated, but requests rooted in invidious discrimination ought to be rejected – loudly.
    Thanks for the great post, Michelle!

    1. Holly,

      Thanks for your comment. You are right–accommodation of patient preferences occurs in realms in and outside of race, but also may include gender and sexual orientation. Sometimes these preferences are silently made and thus do not draw our attention–and then in cases such as that discussed in my post and in Kimani Paul-Emile’s work, the preferences are overtly made and accommodated. So the question is, should some of this be tolerated? And if so when? Or maybe it shouldn’t be tolerated all together, but law has no role in its regulation. I think there is something of a middle ground to be reached. For example, for teenage girls, a parent might reasonably and rationally prefer that her daughter have a female pediatrician, during puberty. Likewise, a parent might prefer that a teenage son visit with a male pediatrician during puberty to spare the child embarrassment and to promote an open dialogue.

      Of course in any “preferencing” there is the possibility of overestimating the abilities in the preferred group and missing out or losing the talents offered by the shunned group. Great fodder for more discussion.

  2. Michelle, great post, and great comment from Holly. One question I have is whether the propriety of patient desires and hospital compliance in these areas may not be trans-substantive across medical specialties. So one distinction would be on the basis of what form of discriminatory desire the patient is expressing (race versus gender, for example) but another might be based on the type of service (mental health vs. OB/GYN). So to use Holly’s example, in OB/GYN context should racial preferences of patients be acceptable the same way gender ones seem to be? Is there a background normative judgment that it is normatively acceptable to prefer a sex-matched OB/GYN but not a race-matched one, while neither in mental health? What if someone wanted an OB/GYN of the opposite sex, would that be acceptable as well? Much of this discussion made me think of Liz Emens’ paper from a few years ago in the Harvard Law Review “Intimate Discrimination”

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