Discrimination occurs in nearly every setting, including healthcare. While it’s important to understand this, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to just let things go. Everyone deserves the right to quality healthcare services, delivered with dignity, compassion, and respect.

To reduce discrimination in healthcare, it’s very important for professionals at every level to keep their eyes and ears open. If you observe discrimination, it’s your responsibility to do something about it.

But how do you recognize discrimination and tactfully handle it? It’s not easy, but it’s something you should be prepared for. Here are some tips for promoting inclusion by stepping in when it’s most needed.

Discrimination Can Take Many Forms

Patients and staff who experience discrimination are often people of color, but racism isn’t the only form of discrimination that occurs in healthcare facilities. People who have lower levels of education and lower incomes are also likely to be targeted by discrimination. There are many different forms of discrimination, based on everything from gender to age to weight.

Because of this, lots of healthcare workers don’t even notice when discrimination is occurring, unless it is blatant. An offhand comment here or there might not seem like much, but it can be extremely harmful to a person’s feelings of safety and trust, especially when they’re in a vulnerable situation.

Pay attention to what others around you are saying. No, this doesn’t mean you’re “policing” anyone. It simply means that you’re prepared to respond appropriately should you be a witness to discrimination.

Pay Attention to Body Language

If you hear a potentially off-color comment or inappropriate treatment of someone, pay attention to the body language of the person who was the target. Do they seem uncomfortable? If so, it’s a strong indication that the person found the conduct to be offensive or hurtful.

It’s not always appropriate to step -in directly. But if you notice something that causes harm, it’s important to either handle it or escalate it as appropriate for the situation.

Know Your Organization’s Policies

Because of the sensitive and serious nature of these issues, you might need to take incidents of discrimination to your manager. Knowing your organization’s policies will help when explaining the situation and why you feel it was inappropriate. Leadership should take your claims seriously anyway, but it’s helpful to know the policies so you can be more accurate and firm in your assessment of the situation.

Calling In When Appropriate

Sometimes, it’s better to approach someone directly about their conduct, rather than escalating the issue immediately. Calling out or embarrassing someone, however, is unlikely to produce positive results. Instead, “calling in” or approaching someone with questions, compassion, and curiosity can be more effective.

It’s always best to assume that a person didn’t mean to say something discriminatory. That’s why asking questions can be a tactful way to bring up an incident that caused someone discomfort or harm.

Intent matters, but so do outcomes. Calling in and asking them about their intentions, then explaining what you saw and how it might have affected whoever was involved, can be a good way to deal with minor incidents and help to reduce future problematic behavior.

People get defensive, especially when they’re embarrassed. Calling in helps to prevent people from digging in their heels and defending their actions instead of apologizing.

Be Open, Honest, and Professional

However you decide to deal with incidents of discrimination, it’s important to communicate openly, honestly, and with professionalism. Emotions can run high when discussing discrimination, and this can easily lead to the situation getting out of hand or highly personal. Proper communication with colleagues and patients can go a long way toward successfully resolving the situation.

Don’t Feel Safe? Bring HR In

If you’re not sure how to approach someone about discrimination or you feel unsafe doing so (such as if you are the target of discrimination), then it might be time to get Human Resources involved. They should have the ability to communicate tactfully and decide what type of action is appropriate in any given situation. If you’re worried about retaliation, ensure that they will keep your complaint anonymous before proceeding.

Biases Create an Unsafe Work Environment & Poorer Patient Outcomes

If you feel uncertain about speaking up when you notice discrimination, it’s important to remember that these types of problems have real consequences. Discrimination reinforces health disparities that can cost people their health or even their lives. It also leads to a toxic workplace where not everyone feels safe.

Making healthcare fairer is a slow process that requires a lot of difficult conversations and brave action. Standing by and letting discrimination stand in effect endorses it and perpetuates these harmful cycles.

It’s uncomfortable to challenge people, especially when it comes to discrimination. That’s why it’s so important for healthcare organizations to have clear policies, training, and support systems that help people feel comfortable speaking up. If your organization doesn’t yet have these systems in place, you might need to be the trailblazer in improving accountability.

Why it Matters: Social Determinates of Health

Fighting discrimination in healthcare can often feel like an uphill battle. There are lots of people who are resistant to change, have implicit biases, or just don’t understand why their words and actions are harmful. Those who are committed to making the industry more diverse and inclusive are often dismissed and sometimes belittled.

However, continuing to work toward equality in healthcare is essential. Social determinants of health, such as income, education, and access to resources, still affect the quality of care a person can expect in the United States. Tackling discrimination won’t fix everything, but it will be a step toward a better, fairer healthcare system that makes people feel safe and promotes better outcomes.

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