Many black, Asian and minority ethnic trainee doctors are experiencing a “climate of fear” at medical schools amid a failure to address widespread racism, according to the British Medical Association.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chairman, said the schools’ inadequate response to racism had left many BAME afraid to speak out.
His criticism came after an investigation by the BMA and the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found medical schools were ill-prepared to deal with racism against students, with only 11 formal complaints recorded since 2010.
Of the 32 medical schools who responded to freedom of information requests by the BMJ, only half said they specifically record complaints about racism.
Nagpaul said there was a worrying disparity between the significant scale of racist incidents BAME students raised with the association and the tiny number of formal complaints.
He added: “Many medical students of BAME origin experience a culture of fear. They are afraid to speak out. But it’s not even recognised as a problem.
“That’s what makes these findings even more powerful because it shows the mismatch between the scale of the problem and the level of reporting, which is a symptom of students not feeling supported. This is widespread, and there is institutional racial bias.”
Olamide Dada, founder of Melanin Medics, a group that supports students and doctors from African and Caribbean communities, said medical schools often “preferred to ignore racism”. She added: “A lot of the time the problem is seen as separate to, rather than a problem with, the institution. I think that separation has contributed to the magnitude of the problem.”
Gurdas Singh, co-chair of the BMA’s medical students committee, said the most common racist incidents raised by their BAME members included patients refusing to be treated by them, and female black medical students being perceived to be nurses.
Singh said his first experience of racism in medical school came in an interview when a clinical examiner asked him: “Are you just applying because you’re Indian?” He said: “I felt ‘you’re never going to give me the score to pass’.”
Toni Robinson, a black medical student at Keele University and member of the BMA medical students committee, said she had experienced many racist incidents but had never reported them.
She added that BAME students often did not feel confident that white staff would understand their complaints, or would dismiss them. “I was on a ward round and a patient said I looked like a golliwog,” she said. “The consultant and other students, who were all white, did not respond. It was brushed under the carpet – completely ignored.”
The BMA has launched a charter for medical schools “to prevent and effectively deal with racial harassment”, which includes guidance for students on how to get support. It calls on medical schools to commit to introducing dedicated complaints procedures for racism and tackling racism on work placements.
Katherine Woolf, associate professor in medical education at University College London, welcomed the guidance. She said she recently asked a group of 80 senior doctors to raise their hand if they felt confident about handling a racism complaint from a trainee doctor. She said: “One person in the room put their hand up.”
Professor John Atherton, co-chair of the Medical Schools Council, said: “We are saddened to hear of the difficult experiences faced by some BAME students and the issues they have faced with reporting these incidents. There is clearly much more work to be done to ensure all students feel safe and supported both at medical school and on placement.”