My Encounter with Discrimination in Healthcare

On my volunteer shift in the Emergency Room recently, I (along with many other staff members) overheard a heated discussion between a male patient and one of the charge nurses behind patient curtains. The patient was trying to clarify he wasn’t demanding a white nurse, but that he insisted on having an older female nurse. He did not want the black male nurse assigned to him. After the charge nurse explained his request would not be granted, he passionately responded that he wanted someone with more experience; to him, that implied an “older” nurse. The charge nurse assured him that his nurse had many years of experience. The patient assumed his nurse would be a woman because he thought all nurses were women. He argued he had been to the hospital numerous times and proclaimed, “I’ve never had a male nurse!” After some back and forth, the patient confessed he didn’t want a man handling his penis to insert a urinary catheter.

The whole interaction was interesting to me because I am an an older nursing student. When I become a new BSN grad, I will have relatively little experience but will be older than many new graduates. Age does not correlate to relevant work experience or skill-level. Many working nurses I encounter while volunteering may be younger than me, but have many more years of nursing experience. This patient erroneously believed an older nurse would automatically have more expertise in a common procedure than a young nurse.

The encounter was not only an example of ageism, but sexism. Yes, there seems to be more female nurses than male nurses. The patient was adamant that he never knew male nurses existed. The patient was an older man, so it’s quite possible his earlier experiences with nurses in a doctor’s office or hospitals were with female nurses. The demographics are changing, however, and quite frankly, I think that’s a good thing. We need healthcare professionals to be as diverse as the patients they serve. This patient needed a gentle reminder that experience, not gender, make nurses more skilled at procedures.

The black male nurse eventually did what needed to be done for the patient. A while later, the man graciously reported to the charge nurse, “He did a great job!” The patient continued to loudly and excitedly share what a surprisingly wonderful experience he had with his nurse. The same staff that overheard the earlier conversation and I looked at each other and smiled in amusement. Happily, it was a great teaching moment for the patient, but also for myself.

Photo by on

I’ve read about patients getting discriminated against or experiencing implicit bias from their providers, but healthcare professionals also experience discrimination from their patients, and the interaction I witnessed was a reminder of that. I have yet to have a patient make discriminating remarks directed towards me, but I know that may happen one day. I’m not quite sure how I’ll react, and I wonder if I’ll learn anything about this in my ABSN program. I want my patients to have the best experience and outcomes possible, but does that mean I should ask to be removed from their case if they don’t like me and are therefore uncomfortable due to my race, age, gender, or orientation? In accommodating a prejudiced patient’s request, are we enabling discrimination or giving them better care by making them comfortable? It’s a complex issue.

Luckily, the interaction I witnessed de-escalated and had a good outcome. What if the patient became more hostile instead of agreeable? Would he have been assigned another nurse? What if the patient thought his nurse did a terrible job? Are there hospital policies for situations like this? I really respect the charge nurse and nurse in the situation, who remained professional and respectful throughout the whole interaction. For me, I learned how a nurse should respond to a prejudiced patient: Be respectful but firm, and assure the patient they are in good care. I hope to maintain my composure and act the same way, should I ever encounter a similar situation with a patient.