As It Happens

Physician opens up about racism in health care after video shows woman demanding white doctor

Dr. Danyaal Raza says doctors are somewhat "shielded" from the worst incidents of racism in health care, but he fears for the safety of patients and front-line workers.
Dr. Danyaal Raza says the video of a woman demanding a white doctor left him 'speechless' and 'stunned.' (St. Michael's Hospital Communications Department )
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Dr. Danyaal Raza says he was rendered "speechless" when he first saw the viral video of a woman in a Mississauga, Ont., medical clinic yelling racial slurs demanding her son see a white doctor. 

After the clip was first aired by CBC Toronto, Dr. Nadia Alam, president-elect of the Ontario Medical Association, said the outburst is "not an isolated incident" and that "a lot of physicians who are visible minorities or have accents" have faced similar situations

But Raza, a family physician at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, says what doctors experience is just a drop in the bucket compared to what patients and front-line health-care workers have to deal with.

He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the video and how racism impacts health care in this country. Here is part of their conversation.

It actually makes me really scared, not for myself, but for the patients I see who are also racialized.- Dr. Danyaal   Raza , St. Micheal's Hospital 

Carol Off: What did you think when you first watched this video?

Danyaal Raza : Someone had posted it on Facebook. I opened the link and I was pretty stunned.

CO: What did you make of the way people in the clinic were responding to her?

DR: If there was any silver lining from that really troubling clip, I think it was how folks really stood up and basically said that this sort of racism is unacceptable and let her know about it in no uncertain terms.

Video shows woman making several demands for doctor who 'doesn't have brown teeth' and 'speaks English.' Video courtesy of Hitesh Bhardwaj. 4:13

CO: And what about your own experiences as a doctor?

DR:  If you look at doctors broadly, we're a very fortunate group. We occupy this place of social privilege. So no physician is immune from all of these "isms," but because of who we are, we are shielded to some respect.

But it seems to be that there is this growing trend of more xenophobia in Canada, more racism directed toward racialized people.

And it actually makes me really scared, not for myself, but for the patients I see who are also racialized — patients who are working in retail jobs, as cab drivers, who are just making ends meet and don't have that title of Dr. before their name to help insulate them against this racism. I'm really worried about my patients.

CO: Tell us more about that and when you started to see such a strong, such a large uptick in the numbers of racism incidents that people are reporting.

DR: Racism's not new to Canada. We're struggling with and trying to understand how we can come to reconciliation with Indigenous people, you know, who face systemic racism in our health-care system. ... We see anti-black racism that also operates in the health-care system.

It's not new, but it's troubling that it seems that for so many people, these issues are not going away.

CO: Has it been really since Donald Trump became [U.S] president that you've seen this uptick?

DR: Yeah, I mean, we saw it very recently in the federal  leadership race for the Conservative Party where one particular candidate — and I'm ashamed that she shares the same profession that I do — that was really pushing rhetoric that was making it easier for people who hold racist beliefs to express them in the way that this woman did in this walk-in clinic in Mississauga.

CO: You're speaking of the candidate Dr. Kellie Leitch.

DR: That's right.

CO: I just want to go back to what experiences people have in your profession. You said that as a doctor you have a bit of a shield because of that title. What about nurses and the front-line workers and people who are receiving the patients? What do they tell you?

DR: People who work in the health-care system who don't have as much social privilege tend to be the target of more of these issues. 

And many times if you're, you know, a racialized physician, you may be unaware of some of the subtle racism that happens. 

So, for example, I've had colleagues who have finished a patient encounter with someone and then told me afterwards that that patient was so relieved that they were seeing a white physician as opposed to someone who wasn't white. 

When I was in my residency, training to be a family doctor, I had a colleague who was a Sikh — a visible Sikh, he wore a turban — and I remember he went out on one of his rotations, and he came back very troubled because he was leaving the clinic one day and a patient who was in that clinic earlier that day was out there in the parking lot waiting to yell racial slurs at him.

People who work in the health-care system who don't have as much social privilege tend to be the target of more of these issues.- Dr. Danyaal Raza

CO: And what rights to do you have? ... Can you refuse to see somebody? 

DR: Whenever we see any patient, it's our duty as health-care providers, as physicians, to do what we can. I mean, that's what we do when we go to medical school and we swear the Hippocratic oath.

But, of course, if we're in a situation where we feel endangered, where our safety might be under threat, it's perfectly OK for us to remove ourselves from that situation.

In a video, a woman (left) makes several demands for a 'white doctor' who 'doesn't have brown teeth, that speaks English' at a walk-in clinic in Mississauga, Ont., on Sunday. (Hitesh Bhardwaj/CBC)

CO: Do you have a right to say, "You have to get out. You are disturbing other patients"?

DR: If someone is in the clinic behaving in an inappropriate manner and really causing a disturbance, that is something that can happen, yes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our conversation with Dr. Danyaal Raza.

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Dr. Nadia Alam as president-elect of the Canadian Medical Association. In fact, she is president-elect of the Ontario Medical Association.