A physician friend texted me several times last week, asking if we should wear white coats to the BLM rally. I said “no,” I’d heard we should wear black.
In retrospect, I should have worn the white coat.
Even if I wasn’t a doctor, I’d join the rally. Like most decent people, I’ve been repulsed by the latest round of anti-black violence. I felt it was my duty to join the protests, to be an ally, and to fight for reform. I couldn’t stay home.
But as doctors, let’s consider the professional roles we can play.
As medical personnel, we can make rallies safer, particularly during a pandemic. We can give out masks and spray hand sanitizer, as many residents and students did last Friday. We can also promote social distancing, discourage mingling between groups, and encourage protesters who are ill to stay home.
We can assist protestors who get sick. With summer coming, dehydration and heat exhaustion may occur. Older marchers and those with diabetes and heart disease may become ill under the sun. Also, though the New Haven rallies have been largely peaceful, we’ve seen the videos of protesters around the country being assaulted with tear gas and pepper spray, shot with rubber bullets, clubbed with batons, and shoved by police. For all these reasons, I believe rallies need a medical presence.
When we protest as physicians, we also send an overdue message from our profession, that we’re committed to combating racism in healthcare. We have yet to live down a legacy of racism in research, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which to this day engenders distrust in the black community. We also have a legacy of giving substandard care to black patients, including less aggressive cancer and cardiology care, and less effective analgesia. The coronavirus epidemic has taken a disproportionate toll on communities of color, the result of longstanding social and medical disparities. In the same way, violence against black people is a relentless public health catastrophe that demands our response.
Finally, as medical educators, our participation in this movement should push us to ask tough questions about discrimination in our classrooms and on the wards, about our ongoing struggles to recruit and retain physicians of color, and our curriculum’s inadequate focus on the health consequences of racism.
Going to rallies is a personal choice and not everyone can or should attend. But there are countless ways to fight racism: we can write to political leaders, we can raise concerns on rounds, we can ask how racism affects our patients, we can consider our own biases, we can read, we can teach, we can do research, and we can support our colleagues and friends. As we enter a new academic new year, let’s ask what each of us can do to fight racism and anti-black violence in particular.
As physicians, our professional responsibilities are inseparable from our larger identities. So, while all rally goers have key roles to play, we physicians can make special contributions. We can use our skills, our respected positions, and our voices to defend the health and well-being of our patients and our communities. For that reason, the next time I go to a rally, I’ll go as a physician and I invite you to do the same. Take your pick: white coat or scrubs. The next time I protest, I’ll know what to wear.
PS: I’ll be back in the MICU tomorrow morning. As a reminder, the new interns arrive on Thursday for orientation. Let’s give them a warm welcome to this wonderful community.
For further reading:
- #BlackLivesMatter — A Challenge to the Medical and Public Health Communities
- Anger Benefits Some Americans Much More Than Others
- Open letter advocating for an anti-racist public health response to demonstrations against systemic injustice occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The Protesters Deserve the Truth About the Coronavirus
- I Can’t Breathe
- Protesting George Floyd's death safely: What to wear, bring and plan for – from tear gas to pepper spray to possible arrest