Parental Bias About a Doctor Can't Trump a Patient's Health

Tough Decisions From My Ethics Caseload

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


August 22, 2023

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

I'd like to present you today with a case that raised a large amount of discussion and debate. I got involved as an ethics consultant on the case. I think you'll find it very interesting and I also think there are going to be some differences of opinion about how to manage the case. I'll be looking forward to getting comments and feedback on this.

The case involved a 14-year-old boy who had been brought into the hospital by his parents, suffering from severe bouts of anxiety that were just almost overwhelming to him. When he was brought in, he was assigned a healthcare provider who had a West African last name. Prior to meeting the patient, I have to say that the father of this kid told the intake department nurse that he requested someone else. He saw the name — he hadn't even met the provider — and he said he wanted someone who might be Catholic.

The parents are both from the Dominican Republic. They identified as White, but they appeared to be non-White next to the nurse who was doing some of the initial intake. They got reassigned to a different provider in the department who identified as African American.

The first month of treatment for the young boy went very well, and he seemed to be getting along extremely well with his provider. He was reporting relief to both parents of some of his anxiety, and the provider felt very connected to the child. A good doctor-patient alliance had been formed.

Nevertheless, at the end of the first month, the father connected back to one of the administrators at the hospital and complained, saying he still wanted a different provider. When asked why, he said, "Well, I don't really want to answer that," but getting pressed, he basically said he wasn't comfortable with having an African American doctor take care of his child. He eventually went back to the argument that what he wanted was someone with a Catholic background, although I don't know that he knew whether this particular provider was religious — Catholic or anything else.

The issue became what to do in the face of these continued demands by the dad for a change. Some people felt that, as the father in charge of the child's care, if we could accommodate what he wanted in terms of the parents being comfortable, then that's something we should do. I absolutely did not agree.

My view is that in a situation where a strong provider-patient relationship has been established, where trust is going both ways, where there are no issues coming up between this 14-year-old and the provider, and when a serious mental health issue is being adequately addressed, the patient's interest must come first.

Once that therapeutic alliance had been established and both the patient and the provider felt satisfied, I don't think the father's wishes made any sense. He may have been acting more out of bigotry or just discomfort about difference in terms of who the provider was. I don't think that's something that any health system should have to accommodate unless it is getting in the way of patient care.

I hope that we treat all physicians as properly trained to deal with all kinds of patients, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or skin color. They should have the skills to manage and do well with any patient. There may be situations where it just doesn't work or where people don't get along. Yes, I think we then should try, perhaps, to shift the doctor, get a different nurse, or have a different person do an exam. That's because of the inability to get the patient's health interests addressed.

Listening to this dad about what he preferred in terms of religion or ethnicity seemed to me to be interfering with medical success. Could I stop him from moving this patient out entirely from the care setting? Probably not, but I think the way to manage this is to try to talk to him — and, by the way, to talk to the mother.

When we did bring the mom into the situation, she was very happy with the healthcare provider. She didn't agree with the dad and wanted to have a meeting with the social worker, the dad, and her to get him to get over the worries, concerns, and maybe even biases he was bringing in about the kind of provider he wanted. That's exactly what we did.

I know that there are many instances where patients may say, "I don't want a particular doctor or a particular type." My view is that we shouldn't accommodate that. We should say that our doctors are trained to help and care for all manner of people. Unless we can think of some reason that there might be a gap or a problem in the actual delivery of the quality of care, we are not going to accommodate racism, bigotry, or bias.

We certainly shouldn't be accommodating that once a successful therapeutic relationship is established. Even when it's a child, I would argue that the patient's best interest has to trump parental desires, parental worries, and parental concerns about the background, ethnicity, and religion of the provider.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

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