On the August 18 episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” satirist John Oliver discussed the impact bias in medicine can have on people seeking medical care. He went into detail about how gender and/or race can impact a person’s access to appropriate health care and treatment. John emphasized how, for many, these biases can be the difference between life and death.
According to the April 24, 2012 article from The Wall Street Journal featured on the show, “women [were] seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed… and sent home from the hospital…” for a heart attack. Women are perceived by many as being chronic complainers, thus their situation is not taken seriously.
A textbook for nurses, which was only pulled out of circulation just two years ago, was also featured on the show due to its bluntly inaccurate racial/ethnic misconceptions of how non-White patients identify pain. This “information” could reinforce inaccurate perceptions of ethnic patients, making it difficult for them to get a proper diagnosis.
At the end of the episode, with the help from comedic legends Wanda Sykes and Larry David,
John included a list of steps the medical industry could take to combat bias in medicine, including:
- Standardized care
- Having doctors and medical students taking non-bias training
- Having more diversity in the medical field
And, most importantly, emphasized patients to advocate for themselves.
As a female Mexican-American, I’ve experienced this bias first hand, especially in regards to my fibromyalgia. During an initial consultation by a top pain specialist in our area, he told me I didn’t appear to have fibromyalgia, despite several confirmed diagnoses, because I was not on heavy pain killers (I’m severely allergic to prescription and over the counter pain killers). Also, my back pain was a combined result of puberty “growing pains” and my heavy menstrual cycles. I was just exaggerating the pain to get out of school. His only recommendation was counseling for my “hypochondria.”
On another occasion, a middle school nurse implied bias against my Mexican immigrant mother, asking Mom if my medications in the health office were “from Mexico.” My family were patients of a local and prominent integrative doctor, an MD who is educated and licensed to practice a combination of mainstream and holistic medicine. While the “medications from Mexico” were holistic pain and acid reflux medications from France (with “Made in France” on the bottles), without consulting my doctor to verify the medications, she called Social Services claiming that my parents were poisoning my brothers and I with unregulated and possibly illegal medicines from Mexico. Thankfully, with the help of our attorney, the credibility of our doctor and extensive medical records, we verified our situation and Social Services closed the case, finding no abuse. As for the nurse, she was not at the school the following school year.
Today, I have a small team of doctors/medical professionals who I trust. However, I still see bias affect my health care, especially if I have to go to new doctors/medical professionals. Consequently, if I have to go to a new doctor, I take my medical documentation, verifying my health issues. On the rare occasion I must go to ER, I go with some else to help advocate for me if I’m too ill to help myself so I don’t suffer from a negative consequence due to a doctor’s potential bias. Better safe than sorry.
Mr. Oliver, thank you for discussing and bringing to light this constantly overlooked, very uncomfortable and heartbreaking reality many patients, including myself, face in the medical system.
It’s important to note there has been critiques and/or criticisms about this episode after he pointed to medical issues that are more common in some groups. For example, Native Americans and African Americans are more likely to have diabetes than Non-Hispanic White Americans and Asian Americans. However, I believe these critics are missing the overall message. If there is bias on the end of the medical provider, it increases the chance of misdiagnosis, mistreatment and lethal consequences for a significant portion of the population. And that is both the point of the segment and the call to action to fix it.
You can watch the episode below: