I Was Shamed by My Doctor for Being Black

August 12, 2015
One woman shares her harrowing—and nearly fatal—experience.

We live in an age of shaming—shamed for how we look, what we say, who we are. It's so relentless, especially online, you might even say we've become desensitized to it. And yet, when the judgment comes straight from an M.D.—the one person you trust implicitly with your well-being—it shocks you to your core. The health consequences can be devastating, even deadly. Enough! With the help of women brave enough to share their stories and be photographed, WH urges you to speak up and join in as we rally for change.

Alexandra Moffett-Bateau, 30, was desperate for relief after being admitted to a hospital with crippling stomach cramps. What she got was an epic rant.

"There is nothing wrong with you. You are just a drug seeker. People like you make my job harder!"

Alexandra had experienced prejudice and discrimination from doctors before—she has chronic pain and lupus, and has been called everything from a hypochondriac to an addict—but nothing like this. Sobbing, she called for backup.

Her mother and several friends arrived to meet with hospital administrators. Learning that her doctor wouldn't be reprimanded wasn't even the worst part, says Alexandra.

"Because we were black, the meeting was surrounded by security guards, in case we 'acted up.'"

The stressful incident became even more wrenching when, after being discharged, Alexandra promptly landed in the cardiac ward of another hospital, where she was treated for a potentially fatal heart inflammation that the first hospital had missed.

RELATED: What It's Like to Have a Heart Attack in Your 30s

"In an ideal world, doctors would start each patient visit with a clean slate," says Sean Phelan, Ph.D., M.P.H., who researches stereotyping in health care for the Mayo Clinic. But with the average patient appointment lasting just 20 minutes—and the average M.D. chronically overworked—physicians have less time and energy to override any innate biases. For example, every doctor in a 2012 study said all patients should be treated the same, regardless of race. However, in a speed round of photo-word pairings, those same docs were quicker to pair pictures of black people with words such as unpleasant and resistant, versus willing and cooperative. In a separate study, a full half of primary care doctors surveyed admitted they believed obese patients were "awkward, unattractive, and noncompliant."

Such prejudices undoubtedly lead to stigmas and shaming—not to mention bias-based treatments. Some of which, say experts, can be fatal.

RELATED: I Was Shamed by My Doctor for Having Multiple Sex Partners

For more on the dangers of doctor-shaming and other stories from women who've been through it, pick up the September issue of Women's Health, on newsstands now. Plus, take a stand against doctor-shaming by sharing your own experiences on social media using the hashtag #StoptheShame.

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