Doctor Says Minority Health Professionals Often Face Discrimination From Patients

Dr. Curtis Okpara said he's heard it all in hospitals when it comes to race. He said his last name and skin color have brought everything from white patients' mouths from the n-word to "lynching."

Okpara, an African-American medical internist based in Houston who practices at Hermann Memorial Hospital and other hospitals, said he tries to diffuse situations before they potentially escalate. But sometimes he's even had to walk away when he's felt uncomfortable.

"I've been raised by my parents to have good manners," Okpara told KRIV TV. "So I go in there and say "good morning," introduce myself and I try to make them feel good before we talk about their diagnosis and treatment." Okpara noted this is typically the first interaction he has with a patient.

Okpara said one recent patient questioned his last name, wondering what kind of name it is. He said in this instance, there happened to be two black nurses with him in the room.

"It's just a coincidence that there was two black nurses and myself," said Okpara, who explained the patient "was not happy being there" and that he'd heard the "n-word" used on multiple occasions. "Even at that point we tried to diffuse the situation and told them we can't say those things, but they just went on and on."

Okpara said the patient even brought up lynching.

Isiah Carey, the host of the program Uncensored on KRIV, cut into the conversation by saying, "That patient said, "my grandparents probably lynched your grandparents."

Okpara said, "Exactly." The doctor said while trying to save lives and direct so much of their time into medical practice, "that really, really hit hard for us."

He asked another physician to take over the case, but the doctor said this isn't the first time he has faced racist remarks during his time in medicine.

"I have a short time period in the medical field as I just finished training two years ago," Okpara said. "But I've dealt with it ever since I was a medical student."

"As minorities, we try to brush it off, laugh it off — but it kind of takes a toll on us," Okpara said. He said though he's heard racists remarks many times over the years, "this one hit home." He added that the hospital has "good protocol" in looking after doctors and nurses, and making sure they have a good work environment, and he said "the hospital was right behind us every step of the way."

"It is our right to treat patients, but then again we will not tolerate discrimination," Okpara said.

Okpara's case is a mere microcosm of racism towards doctors of color, according to MD Magazine. The report states that it's not only racist behavior from patients toward minority doctors, but also from other doctors.

"Often, minority or immigrant doctors are subject to discrimination from other doctors. This may happen when doctors are rude or condescending to those who speak with an accent, don't want to deal with names that are hard to pronounce, are uncomfortable with a way of dressing that is less polished or 'different,' or are truly biased against minorities and immigrants," MD Magazine reported.

But it doesn't stop there. MD Magazine said the racial tension also stems from administrators and support staff.

Minorities make up 9 percent of the population of American doctors, according to the KRIV.

"With this being only 9 percent, I feel like we as physicians, as minorities, as nurses and everybody in the medical field, and not just everybody in the medical field, but in other professions as well, make sure we take stands against this because this is something that needs to change," Okpara said.