Tackling racism in the NHS—we need to listen to the voices of ethnic minority staff

Staff should have a platform to communicate the discrimination happening throughout the NHS, says Nisha Aggarwal 

The covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the great public service that millions of ethnic minority workers give to the British public on a daily basis, including the many healthcare professionals who staff our NHS. It is a conversation which cannot end with the elimination of this virus, and which is still in its infancy. 

Early data found that approximately 63% of covid-19 related deaths of NHS workers were in people from ethnic minority groups, despite this group only accounting for 21% of the NHS workforce. This demonstrates the disproportionate risks that people from ethnic minority groups are taking with their lives to care for the British public. Yet the inequalities experienced by ethnic minority healthcare workers do not only come at the hands of this virus, and neither are they a new phenomenon. 

Despite being an FY2 doctor, still at the beginning of my career, I have already experienced and witnessed many acts of racial discrimination in the NHS. 

As a medical student, I was repeatedly asked if my parents had forced me to study medicine. It is a well worn stereotype that Asian parents encourage their children to pursue secure careers with good pensions, such as medicine, law, and accounting. But by being asked that question I was put into a box, and, as a teenager (still protected, still naïve), I didn’t even realise it. Would a white student be asked the same question? 

Beyond this, does the questioner ever consider what these stereotypes have been built on and why immigrants might often wish for their children to pursue such careers? Perhaps we should look to the hardships and turbulence of colonialism and the fight for independence many of our parents and grandparents lived through? Or the decades of discrimination they experienced even in the aftermath, which restricted the job options available to them and their peers? If we look beyond the surface of these stereotypes, our understanding of one another can advance beyond the repetitive strains such ignorant questions perpetuate. 

After six long, tough years at medical school, I have found it painful to see colleagues, whose clinical practice is capable and safe, judged by others as incompetent simply because they have a different accent. I have even heard a white colleague declare that they struggle to remember the names of Asian doctors because “they all look the same.” Remembering someone’s name is a basic sign of respect, something my white colleagues receive automatically. If a senior staff member cannot remember or be bothered to learn your name, you’ve not only been reduced to the colour of your skin and the stereotypes someone has assigned to it, you are also immediately disadvantaged professionally.

This is before I’ve even mentioned the racism that NHS staff from ethnic minority groups face from the general public—from the patients we have a duty to care for. In my first year as a doctor I have witnessed patients refuse treatment from colleagues solely on the basis of their skin colour. More recently, I was asked my name by a relative of a patient over the telephone, who went on to tell me that the language barrier between myself and the patient must be hindering my ability to care for them, despite my first and only language being English. It is shocking and deflating to see people unashamedly vocalise these views, as if they have a right to assume superiority over their carers based on their skin colour or ethnicity.  

Covid-19 has spurred the conversation and debate around racism in the NHS, but we now need to harness this momentum and change the narrative. Nurses, doctors, and auxiliary staff from ethnic minority groups need a safe space to report the racism they experience in the workplace. Although we are represented in number in the workforce, we are still not represented in positions of power. Only 7.4% of very senior managers in the NHS are from an ethnic minority background; how can our experiences of discrimination be truly heard, understood, and acted upon if this is the case?

Nearly a century ago, the physician Harold Moody created the League of Coloured Peoples after emigrating from Jamaica to the UK and being rejected from countless jobs because he was black. This was one of the first anti-racism campaigns of its kind, which lobbied for improving race relations in hospitals and other healthcare institutions. 

To tackle systemic racism, we need to consider Moody’s pioneering approach and build more networks for ethnic minority staff. Furthermore, we need more appointed representatives from ethnic minority groups in hospitals to provide said staff with a voice, just as we have representatives for foundation doctors and trainees. We need a platform where we can raise our concerns, recognise and communicate the discrimination happening throughout the NHS, and educate the wider health service. 

In such unprecedented, challenging times, we cannot afford to lose morale due to baseless discrimination, which should by now be extinct. 

Let one silver lining of covid-19 be that we look after our invaluable healthcare workers from ethnic minority groups who are playing a vital part in protecting Britain and its people from this pandemic.

Nisha Aggarwal is a foundation year 2 doctor in the West Midlands, an aspiring paediatrician, and advocate for racial equality.

Twitter @NishaAggarwal9

Competing interests: none declared.