The Hidden Faces in Medicine

October 28, 2022

By Amber Whitley, MD

What comes to mind when you hear the word physician? Male, intelligent, arrogant, medicine, white, surgeon, healer, etc. Do you think of me, a black female physician in medicine? The number of females in medicine is steadily increasing, but there are still many specialties where female physicians are non-existent. How many woman neurosurgeons or orthopedic surgeons do you know? There are still many specialties that are male-dominant and often toxic to the young female physician. Try to remember the last time you were in a hospital; how many black female physicians did you see? One? When I come to the hospital, I often too only see one and that one is me. Imagine working in an environment where no one looks like you and where many are unaware of the unique obstacles that you alone had to overcome. Visualize wearing your white coat, doctor badge and having Dr. Whitley imprinted on your scrubs merely for others to ask you, “Are you the nurse?” Why do I have to wear so many identifiers for others to see me, too, as the doctor? Can you imagine what it must feel like to be called the nurse by your own patient, even after introducing yourself as the doctor and seeing them every single day? What would you do if you walked into the room only to hear the patient say into their cellphone, “Sorry I have to go my nurse is here?” I politely re-introduce myself as Dr. Whitley, often leading to an awkward silence followed by an apology from the patient. When will the world see me, too, as the physician I am? It is exhausting to have to politely remind patients and other health care professionals that I am the doctor.

The next time you are in the hospital, remember only doctors have the letters D R before their name or M D after their name. We should all take the time to listen, examine our biases and open our mind. If I introduce myself as the doctor, I am the doctor, even if I don’t resemble what society has told us a doctor is supposed to look like. At this moment I ask you to reflect and envision your next visit to the hospital. Can you reshape your image of the doctor?

Dr. Amber Whitley is a second-year internal medicine resident at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:  Darnyi Zsóka, Public domain