November 5, 2018

'Are you actually an MD?' One black doctor’s 'bewildering' experience trying to help a passenger on a flight

Daily Briefing

    When a nearby passenger on a Delta flight became distressed, Fatima Stanford, a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, didn't hesitate to help. But crew members questioned whether Stanford was really a doctor, highlighting the pervasive issue of racial misperceptions in medicine.

    How to address health inequity in your community

    'Are you actually an MD?'

    While Stanford was assisting the sick passenger, a flight attendant approached her and asked if she was a doctor. Stanford said she was, and presented the attendant with her wallet-sized medical license, which the attendant looked at and walked away. Later, another flight attendant asked to see the license, looked at it, and also walked away.

    After that, the two flight attendants approached Stanford and began asking her questions. One of the attendants asked, "Are you a head doctor?" After Stanford said she didn't understand the question, the attendant asked, "Are you actually an M.D.?" The second attendant then asked, "Is this your license?"

    Stanford replied, "Why would I carry someone else's medical license?" According to Stanford, the flight attendants did not ask her any further questions about her medical license or her position as a doctor.

    After the flight, Stanford shared the incident—which she called "bewildering"—on social media. Delta on Wednesday apologized to Stanford and said they were investigating the incident.

    Anthony Black, a Delta spokesperson, on Thursday said the airline had changed its medical credentials policy in 2016, and flight attendants are no longer required to verify medical credentials from a passenger who says they're a physician, physician's assistant, nurse, paramedic, or EMT. Black added that, according to the crew on the flight, the flight attendants "initially misread the credentials offered by the doctor and went to reconfirm her specific medical discipline." He said, "Stanford's care for the passenger remained uninterrupted throughout the duration of the medical issue."

    Jon Austin—a spokesperson for Republic Airline, a Delta Connection partner who employed the flight attendants—said, "We're grateful to Dr. Stanford for her medical assistance onboard our Flight 5935 and are sorry for any misunderstanding that may have occurred during her exchange with our in-flight crew."

    Stanford said she was "very unsatisfied" with Delta's response.

    'A lifelong battle'

    This isn't the first time an incident like Stanford's has occurred on a Delta flight, the New York Times reports. Delta's 2016 policy change came in response to an incident involving Tamika Cross, a black physician from Houston. Cross offered to treat a sick patient during a Delta flight and, according to Cross, a flight attendant demanded to see her medical credentials and confirm she was an "actual" medical professional.

    Cross said she had previously encountered incidents in which people have assumed she isn't a doctor. "I think minorities in general, especially in my field of practice—I feel that they are always questioned and always assumed to be the nurse or the nurse's aide or here as part of the janitorial team or ancillary staff," she said.

    Cross on Thursday told the Times that not much has changed since 2016. Even now, working at Memorial Hermann Pearland Hospital, Cross said she's sometimes mistaken for support staff. "I think that it is just going to be a lifelong battle," she said.

    Stanford concurred, saying black doctors being mistaken for ancillary staff "is something that the medical community has embraced as a reality," noting, "When you Google a doctor, most of the pictures that come up are of a white man." She added, "There are other people who look like me. And I should not be called into question about something I have worked for my entire life."

    Stanford said her experience on the Delta flight shows the importance of having "more people that look like me" in the medical profession. "I know that there's a lot of work to be done," she said (Hauser, New York Times, 11/2; Crespo, CNN, 11/1).

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