The Multi-Layered Injustices Healthcare Workers of Color Face

Image credit: Eli Grek/Pixabay

Healthcare workers top the list of heroes in 2020. They put their health second behind their patients, worked countless hours to ensure communities descended from the peak of this pandemic, and fought through personal traumas and challenges prompted by COVID-19.

People of Color or POC healthcare workers are especially appreciated as society continues to acknowledge and address the multi-layered injustices they face in their line of work. This pandemic further highlighted already established industry challenges like balancing a personal and professional life as a POC. It also brought forth new ones like easing the fear that comes along with potentially becoming a patient yourself.

Let’s explore the above two injustices in-depth as well as one more multi-layered stressor healthcare workers of color face, especially in light of COVID-19. 

Balancing Being a Person of Color Personally and Professionally

Professionally, you’re asked to put yourself and your health second to patients who may or may not like that you’re a POC. They may not respect the cultural differences you display, even ask to remove you as their healthcare professional because of racial or ethnic reasons.

As a healthcare professional of color, you could also be facing a lack of diversity in the workplace and racism from coworkers. The Journal of Allied Health stated that “Close evaluation of occupational data reveal that the majority of people of color in healthcare jobs remain in entry-level and often lower-paying jobs with little opportunity for advancement, such as aides, assistants, and technicians.”

Being a person of color in both professional and personal settings, you’re forced to revisit questions like these daily: 

  • How can you combat the racial injustices you face inside of the workplace and similar racially-charged experiences that wait for you outside of work? 
  • How can you be an unapologetic activist and still be accepted professionally? 
  • How can you work through political views, social unrest, safety, and increased job stress?
  • How can you expose racial gaps in the workplace and in patient care, and confidently push for justice in their name?

Workers of color have long felt discouraged from opening up about themselves at work. But as the movement for justice and reform persists, they are seeking ways to productively engage in political conversation and social activism despite the fear of adverse reactions from patients and employees. The difficulty lies in honoring their personal experiences as POC and their professional duties at the same time.  

Witnessing the Injustices Patients of Color Face 

Social issues like racism influence the health outcomes for Black people and other people of color. Racism is a prominent issue in the healthcare industry primarily because there is no representation across positions.

According to a study done by Science Direct, “Only 23% of African Americans, 26% of Hispanics, and 39% of Asian Americans have a physician that shares their race or ethnicity, compared to 82% of White Americans.”

Healthcare workers of color are forced to look on in desperation because there just aren’t enough people for the number of patients of color seeking help. They endure emotional and physical exhaustion unmatched by their white coworkers because of this fact.

Aside from patient care, overwhelmed and overworked healthcare workers also have to deal with securing patient information and navigating new challenges revolving around telehealth. Patients of color are often neglected when it comes to obtaining accurate health information, information security, and patient education.

Healthcare workers of color witnessing these disparities in treatment each day is an injustice in itself, but there is an added layer by not being able to do much to correct them on a wide scale in the industry, hence why they’re starting outside of their facility walls hoping the impact will seep in. 

The Fear of Becoming a Patient 

Black workers make up about one in six of all front-line-industry workers, with healthcare being fourth on the list of essential jobs they are disproportionately represented. This makes them more likely to contract COVID-19 on the job. This stat alone gives life to the very real fear of becoming a patient themselves and enduring the treatment they’ve sadly witnessed.

The fear of enduring those same injustices and potentially not making it out of the hospital because of them is quite overwhelming, negatively impacting mental, physical and emotional health.

Research shows that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color. Socioeconomic status, access to quality healthcare, and excessive exposure to the virus due to occupation are all contributing factors to this element. 

The CDC shows that American Indian or Alaska Native, Non-Hispanic persons account for more COVID-19 related deaths than any other race, with Black or African American persons as a close second, and Hispanic or Latino persons rounding out the top 3 racial groups.

Healthcare workers of color are constantly reminded of these statistics, witnessing day-to-day why they exist the way they do. If they were to ever become a patient themselves, they face the very real possibility of receiving inadequate treatment that could result in death, chronic illness, and medical mishaps that have affected the lives of so many POC.

Changing the conditions outside of the clinic or hospital walls will have a positive impact on the structure inside of those walls.

As long as systems of oppression remain socially, economically, and politically, they’ll remain in healthcare as well. It’s up to healthcare workers of color to continue speaking out about their injustices, implementing any strategies that help them balance and combat these injustices, and encourage all people to participate in the healing necessary for a completely just healthcare industry.