With everyone from her colleagues to her patients making assumptions about her based on the color of her skin, Dr. Michele Harper knows first hand, the importance of addressing racism in medicine.
Dr. Michele Harper, a New Jersey-based emergency room physician, has over a decade's experience in the ER. A graduate of Harvard University and the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, she has served as chief resident at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx and in the emergency department at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia. Despite her impressive credentials, she has had to constantly fight battles to prove her worth as a medical professional to all kinds of people. With everyone from her colleagues to her patients making assumptions about her based on the color of her skin, Harper knows first hand, the importance of addressing racism in medicine.
Speaking to PEOPLE, Harper—who recently published her memoir The Beauty in Breaking—shared the many challenges and racial biases she's encountered over the course of her career. "When you're Black in medicine, there are constant battles. You constantly have to prove yourself to all kinds of people. Like any workplace, medicine has a hierarchy — but people of color and women are usually undermined. You're constantly questioned, and it's not by just your colleagues. It's your patients. It's people outside of your departments. It's everyone, at all times," she said.
Recounting a recent incident that took place at the hospital, Harper continued, "I recently had a patient, a young woman who was assaulted. She wanted to file a police report, so an officer came to the hospital. At some point, I heard screaming from her room. She was saying, 'Leave. Get out. I want you out of here.' Her cries became more and more distressed. She was in there alone. The curtain was closed. None of us knew what was happening. There wasn't a doctor assigned yet to her, she only had a nurse. But everyone heard her yelling and no one got up."
Earlier this week I organised a black lives matter protest in my hospital and spoke about how medicine is not exempt from racism and the importance of addressing racism as a public health concern. pic.twitter.com/5dI3UlhqiN— Dr A S H A (@JeSuisAsha) June 27, 2020
"Of the doctors and nurses on duty, I was the only Black person. She was a Black patient. Nobody went to check on her. I said, 'What is going on?' Nobody answered. I asked her nurse. She casually replied, 'Oh, the police came to take her report and that's who's in there.' So I replied, 'Well, do you want to check? Because she's yelling for help.' She just sat there. Everyone just sat there. I was horrified. I ran to the room. I was the one to take a stand, to see if she was okay and to ask him to leave the room because she didn't feel safe, and she wasn't under arrest. She was just trying to get help because she was assaulted," she revealed.
"I long for an America where, as a Black man, no one is surprised if I am a physician." In an op-ed for the @chicagotribune, Assistant Professor Starane Shepherd, MD (@StaraneShepherd) writes about the inherent racism in medicine. Read it here: https://t.co/duYQ6NRsAv— Rush Medical College (@rushumedcollege) July 6, 2020
"When I left the room, I found out that the police officer had said that he was going to try to arrest me for interfering with his investigation. Nobody in the department did anything for her or me. These are the risks we take every day as people of color, as women in a structure that is not set up to be equitable, that is set up to ignore and silence us often," Harper explained. She also revealed that she'd once been denied a promotion at a hospital despite her being the only applicant and very qualified for the position. "They rejected me, leaving the position vacant. I subsequently left the hospital. Later, I learned they hired a white male nurse instead," she said.
Dr. Michele Harper Shares More Than A Decade Of ER Experience In New Memoir https://t.co/llArazI7XJ— NPR Books (@nprbooks) July 4, 2020
"In medicine, there’s no consensus that racism is a problem. But there has to be that agreement and understanding or nothing will be done about it. We have to examine why this is happening," Harper continued. "For example: at hospitals in big cities, why doesn’t the staff reflect the diversity of its community? There’s no easy answer to this question. It relates to structural racism. There are so many barriers to entry in medicine for people of color: the cost of medical school, wage gaps, redlining, access to good public education, and more. Until that's addressed, we won't have more people from underrepresented communities in medicine."
Besides the physical risks, this has a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of Black people, who are made to feel anxious/unsafe doing the most basic activities. Black people are burdened with having to make choices each day to adjust themselves for their safety/comfort of others— Cameron Sharpe (@cameronjsharpe) May 7, 2020
"If we had more people in medicine from poor or otherwise disenfranchised backgrounds, we would have better physicians, physicians who could empathize more," she added. "If we had more healthcare providers with differing physical abilities and health challenges, who didn't come from wealthy families... that would be a strong start. Studies show that these doctors tend to be more empathetic to their patients. But, and perhaps most critically, people have to be held accountable when it comes to racism."
This doesn't make life during a pandemic any easier for Black people, who are subject to discrimination from daily life with face masks to #socialinequities in the emergency room. It's important that we all recognize the roots and the impact of systemic racism in public health. pic.twitter.com/xRLv1NzT8R— Cameron Sharpe (@cameronjsharpe) May 7, 2020