We’re supposed to be the nice ones. The friendly, fun, caring and supportive speciality – right? We’re the ones who have teddies on our stethoscopes and know all the words to Disney songs. In the hospital, we’d like to think we’re the Good Guys – but maybe we’re not when it comes to race.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a monumental challenge to the NHS and has, undoubtedly, showcased the everyday heroism of our staff. It has also thrown a sharp light onto the ongoing racial inequalities in our society and healthcare systems. Racial disparities in the pandemic have been widely documented – and make for sobering reading. Analysis of national hospital data suggests that people of black and other minority backgrounds are up to twice as likely to die from the virus, as compared to white Britons – with some groups, such as black African-born men living in Britain, having an even higher risk . Despite this, we have little doubt that the major impetus for the unprecedented emergency measures, national lockdowns, and political obsession was not the deaths of the poor, the ethnic minorities, or those in low and middle-income countries – but the perceived threat to wealthy, predominantly white, Westerners.
In an eerie parallel to the racial inequalities highlighted by the pandemic, the past year has also seen racial tensions in the USA reach boiling point. Following several high-profile incidents of police brutality, there was an eruption of social unrest and protest in America and around the world. The systemic disregard of black lives is not just written in blood on American pavements. It is written into the systems that surround us in our everyday working lives. As a speciality, and in the NHS as a whole, we must confront these engrained systemic inequalities, if we are to provide truly equitable care to all of our patients.
In this blog series, we will examine how clinical outcomes for common paediatric conditions are worse for children from minority ethnic backgrounds. Stillbirth, low birth weight and preterm birth are all more common in minority groups as compared to white northern European populations [2,3,4 ]. Outcomes for common chronic conditions, such as asthma and type 2 diabetes, are also worse for children within minority groups [5,6]. This could be because care received by children with chronic conditions is worse. Non-white children with renal failure are less likely to pre-emptively receive a renal transplant, for example . There are also complex social and environmental roots to these adverse health outcomes – such as increased poverty in non-White groups  — and we will try to investigate these issues in more detail.
We will also explore how paediatrics has normalized white Northern European genetics, physiology and behaviour, leading to biased clinical decision making. Normalization of one ethnic group has lead to the classification of other normal values (in both the laboratory and social sense) as pathological or inappropriate. In other words – you are only normal if you are white and normal. Neutrophil counts are often lower in black babies . Rather than reporting ethnically normal ranges babies often end up having multiple blood tests due to a lack of awareness of the variation. Parents get told that their neutrophil count is low, but it’s acceptable for a black baby (rather than categorically stating that their count is normal). Worst still, it might be classified as a disease – benign ethnic neutropenia – despite not being associated with increased morbidity or mortality.
Within medical education, we are guilty of peddling irrelevant and outdated racial and religious stereotypes. These hold little educational value, but risk enforcing dangerous bias within our future doctors. Any paediatrician would be able to tell you about the association between Tay-Sachs disease and Ashkenazi heritage, or sickle cell disease and sub-Saharan Black Africans. Such associations are often over-simplified and over-emphasized, to the point of creating a disease-ridden caricature, particularly in exam questions. Most of these stereotyped conditions are very rare, and over-emphasis during medical school risks blinkering us to more common diagnoses. We’ll explore how racial bias is ingrained in medical education in the UK, and try to come up with some ideas on how we can improve MedEd to be more diverse and inclusive in the future.
There also seems to be a disproportionate concern that those from Muslim backgrounds might be consanguineous, and that we need to ask about this even when it is not relevant to the presenting complaint. Conversely, when genetic testing is being sent off, a detailed family tree needs to be drawn. It should include details of any consanguinity – yet it seems that a white family is less likely to be asked. As first or second cousin marriages are no longer a social norm in the UK, they have become defined by pathological associations with genetic conditions, such as inborn errors of metabolism. And whilst there are, of course, differences in the prevalence of disease alleles in different populations, and an increased risk of recessive disorders in families with intergenerational consanguinity, it does not automatically follow that a child from a Muslim background has a recessive disorder, or that a white British child does not. The same considerations need to be given to other cultural practices that might be different to the social norms of Northern and Western Europe. Putting children on a vegetarian diet is often classed as a ‘restrictive diet’ – despite the fact that it is only restrictive based on traditional Western standards – and might, in fact, hold health benefits .
Finally, in our series, we will examine how systemic racism within the health service tolerates – and sometimes even facilitates – the unacceptable behaviours demonstrated by some parents. One thing that sets paediatrics apart from adult medicine is that patients are almost never seen alone, and a parent is often required to deliver care. This can present a dilemma to staff when confronted with a racist parent. Any punishment directed towards the parents might directly harm their child. We will explore how guidelines should be developed to help clinicians handle racist parents, whilst minimizing the effect on the clinical care of our patients.
It can be painful for us – as individuals and as a speciality – to consider that we might be complicit in a racist system that ultimately leads to poorer health outcomes for some children. Just because something is painful, does not mean we shouldn’t do it. We hope that you’ll join us for this series of short articles, as we try to explore how we can begin to move from a white-centric healthcare system to a child-centred one.
4) Aveyard P, et al (2002). The risk of preterm delivery in women of different ethnic groups. British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 109:894-899.
5) Asthma UK (2018) On the Edge: How inequality affects people with asthma. Available at www.asthma.org.uk
6) RCPCH (2020) State of Child Health: Diabetes. Available at www.rcpch.ac.uk
8) Office for National Statistics (2020) Child poverty and education outcomes by ethnicity. Available at www.ons.gov.uk.
9) Haddy TB, Rana SR, Castro O. (1999) Benign ethnic neutropenia: what is a normal absolute neutrophil count? J Lab Clin Med. 133:15-22.
10) Kalhoff H. et al (2021) Vegetarian Diets in Children—Some Thoughts on Restricted Diets and Allergy. International Journal of Clinical Medicine. 12:43-60.