Racial harassment in medical schools is a barrier to some students becoming tomorrow’s doctors and must be addressed, says BMA

Medical students are subject to racism in medical schools and the BMA is calling for more to be done to address “unacceptable barriers” which are stopping students from achieving their full potential. 

This follows an investigation by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the BMA which found that out of 32 medicals schools in the UK that responded to a freedom of information request, only half said they collect data on students’ complaints about racism and racial harrassment. 

The doctors' union is today launching a charter2 aimed at ensuring medical schools can effectively prevent racial harassment and provide support for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students. In the foreword of the charter, BMA council chair Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, speaks of the need to “value and support inclusivity and diversity from the very beginning”.

The findings indicate high levels of underreporting as, among those that did collect the data, only 11 complaints were recorded since 2010/11. 

This is despite an inquiry3 into racial harassment in UK universities, by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which found around a quarter of BAME students said they had experienced racial harassment since starting their course. 

Toni Robinson, a black medical student and member of the BMA medical students committee said that “examples of racial abuse and disrespect are countless”.

Describing her own encounter with racial harassment she said: “I once experienced a patient calling me a ‘golliwog’ whilst on a ward round where the other students and consultant didn’t acknowledge it at all, leaving me feeling intimidated and embarrassed that none of my peers supported me”.

Writing in the foreword, Dr Nagpaul warns that “such behaviour damages self-esteem and confidence, affects learning, and contributes to the ethnic attainment gap that emerges through medical education and training”.

Medical schools across the UK are being encouraged to sign up to the BMA charter which offers guidance for best practice across four key areas which are in need of addressing:

•    supporting individuals to speak out;
•    ensuring robust processes for reporting and handling complaints;
•    mainstreaming equality, diversity and inclusion across the learning environment; 
•    addressing racial harassment on work placements.

BMA medical students committee co-chair Gurdas Singh and BMA medical students committee deputy chair and welfare lead Stephen Naulls, said: “It is incredibly disheartening and frankly unacceptable that, after years of hard work to earn a place at medical school, medical students are still encountering racism.

“Racial harassment is a serious barrier to attainment and it is vital therefore that medical schools, as the first port of call for prospective doctors on their career path, deal with this effectively.

“Medical students must feel empowered to call out racism and bad behaviour and importantly, feel that these concerns will be listened to and dealt with effectively.

“Medical schools can no longer set a tone which teaches students that racism in its various forms is something they may simply have to accept throughout the course of their medical career.

“By adopting the BMA’s charter, medical schools can instead play a key role in contributing to the institutional and cultural change that is so badly needed.”

The Medical Schools Council (MSC) said, “MSC welcomes this guidance for medical students on racial harassment. MSC plans to use the helpful recommendations in the report in our ongoing work to support medical schools in addressing the issue of the ethnic award gap. 

“One key aspect of this work is ensuring that the learning environment is supportive to all learners, no matter what their background is. Improved reporting mechanisms for racial harassment will help students feel supported and help medical schools to take action to improve the education and training they provide.”