THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: the Life and Times of a BME Doctor in the NHS - from Recruitment to Embitterment
These are my personal observations and experience of working for thirty five years in countries of three continents (India, Canada and UK). Till I became the President of the Indian Orthopedic Society of UK (IOS-U-K) around 2005 I had no reason to acknowledge the existence of discrimination in the NHS. I had passed all my examinations at the first attempt, I had become a consultant in the early 1990s at the same average age (about 37 years) of any UK born white male doctor in orthopaedics at that time. It was only after I had blown the whistle while actually observing the horrendous treatment meted out to my colleague orthopaedic surgeons did I actually personally experience racial discrimination in the NHS in its ugliest form.
I have now come to recognize that the traditional attitude to recruiting and retaining BME doctors and nurses into the NHS is no different from the ‘Discard After Single Use Only’ policy of the slave trade. There is little security or safety and no fairness of treatment. The system of incentives and reward for hard work and competence simply do not seem to apply to BME staff. Unlike others, the course of life of a BME professional whether doctor or nurse seems to follow several distinct stages.
1. Stage of Denial: We work hard to keep the home and family together, crediting our limited successes to the support of others. Any perceived failures are almost always attributed to bad luck, never to the possibility of discrimination.
2. Stage of Panic: Naively believing that blowing the whistle is good for the sake of our patients, we publicly voice our concerns forgetting that those responsible for the cock-ups in the establishment will not thank a BME for exposing their incompetence. Such persons will not hesitate in recruiting others even less scrupulous than themselves to intimidate and harass you for the loss of their ‘private empire’ style of working. They usually have no difficulty colluding with your colleagues who are probably already dreading the loss of their private practice to others. The establishment leviathan is now ready to turn against you for stirring up a hornet’s nest when you were least expecting this response.
3. Stage of silence: We are made to feel guilty for creating a conflict in the department where none had supposedly existed previously. We become vulnerable to subtle emotional blackmail by promising to avoid future conflicts and agreeing to behave in a more ‘civil manner’, i.e. accept that we should next time bring up any issues ‘face to face’ for a ‘negotiated’ resolution of ‘confusions and misunderstandings’ rather than going through the employer. We are later reminded of this sword of Damocles hanging on our heads and we become too frightened to think rationally, instead we too begin to behave like any victim would. We invite others to quash us underfoot like a worm by tacitly acquiescing to the rules of their game. This not only bolsters the opposition but also puts our relationship with our employer in jeopardy. We now enter a state of limbo in our career progression to the extent of even questioning our own achievements and wondering whether we had truly deserved our CEA points, if we managed to get any. We convince ourselves that this was just a favour granted to us by our generous employer but only with the benevolent support of our well-meaning colleagues. We begin to lose our self-esteem and any frame of reference we may have for our sense of self-identity, our moral character is disabled and allows us to do peculiar things we would never normally do. We are soon at risk of losing our raison d’être.
4. Stage of Escalation: Unfortunately a number of us cannot or will not read the writing on the wall. We may injudiciously allow the situation to escalate out of control and pave the way leading to our own harassment and intimidation at the hands of the abusers in the establishment. If this does not succeed to cow us down we are then threatened with disciplinary action including the possibility of instant dismissal for supposedly ‘serious charges’ including criminal prosecutions for what are really minor infractions. The establishment will not hesitate to dispense summary retribution through Dismissal Orders under ‘MHPS’ for trumped-up charges and enforce redundancy despite any findings of the Employment Tribunals. It is not uncommon for us to be referred to the GMC by this stage as the latter is hand in glove with the Medical Directors against the BME and feels obliged to take up investigating all such matters despite no evidence being submitted by the Establishment, a clear case of disproportionately handing out injustices to BME.
5. Stage of ‘Resolution of Conflagration’: this usually means a ‘negotiated settlement for enforced retirement’ and it is most diabolical that this sometimes comes about because the innocent BME cannot bear the humiliation of a criminal trial or a GMC hearing and will most likely be on the verge of deciding to commit suicide.
Suggestions to avoid such a fate:
This is difficult because everyone reacts to crises in completely different and unpredictable ways. Following is just commonsense, not rocket-science:
1. Maintain good medical practice (and relations with colleagues)
2. Know the law (including the latest version of MHPS and PIDA)
3. Take advice from a mentor (and follow every step correctly)
4. Anticipate trouble (band up together, join BAPIO and MDS)
5. Use local procedures fully (keep meticulous documentation)
6. Involve regulatory bodies at an early stage (NCAS, GMC, CQC, CPS)
7. Remain vigilant and focused, be discreet, stay calm and never say die
The elephant in the room is discrimination, name it, call it out, learn to effectively deal with it and work to reduce its harmful effects on yourself and others.
Prof Suresh Rao
Consultant Orthopaedic & Trauma Surgeon
North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust
Hon. Professor, University of Cumbria
(The above is from the talk given by Suresh Rao at a meeting in Manchester on 26 March 2013. All the content are the personal views of Suresh Rao)
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