Medical negligence

The detrimental effects of racial bias in the UK’s healthcare system

Our experts outline the effects that racial bias has on the UK’s healthcare system and how to advocate for yourself in a medical setting.

21 June 2023

Despite ongoing efforts for racial equality, racial bias is still a prevalent issue within the UK’s healthcare system. Racial bias in healthcare refers to the differential treatment experienced by people based on their race or ethnicity. These biases are shown in several ways, including the type of access to healthcare services, discrepancies in the quality of care provided, and racial discrimination in healthcare decision-making.

Throughout this article, we will be using the term "global majority" as a collective term for ethnic groups who are not white, which constitute approximately 85 percent of the global population.

What is racial bias?

Racial discrimination refers to the differing treatment of different ethnic, religious, or national groups of individuals. The NHS has found that people from certain ethnic origins face inequalities in accessing healthcare services. This is specifically seen in areas such as maternal health, mental health and chronic diseases. A 2020 study published in the British Medical Journal found black patients in the UK have experienced prejudice from healthcare professionals because of their ethnicity and the colour of their skin, with 65% of younger people feeling especially discriminated against saying they’ve experienced prejudice from healthcare professionals.

A major example of racial bias within the UK’s healthcare system is the Windrush scandal. The Windrush generation refers to individuals who immigrated to the UK from Caribbean countries, between 1948 and 1973. It was recently revealed that many people from this generation were wrongly classified as illegal immigrants and faced mistreatment, losing access to housing, bank accounts and healthcare, and even faced deportation.

What are the effects of racial bias in healthcare?

Racial discrimination and racial bias within the healthcare system can stem from a variety of factors, one of which is institutional racism. Within the healthcare system, this can be shown through disparities in the access to care, quality of care, and the uneven distribution of vital resources which is intertwined with socioeconomic backgrounds, with more than half of the UK’s children of the global majority living in poverty.

Health disparities and inequalities can be seen in the rate of chronic disease care. Certain ethnic groups have a higher prevalence of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and sickle cell disease. This can be attributed to various factors, including genetic predispositions, lifestyle, socioeconomic disadvantages, and limited access to preventive care.

Whilst the number of medical staff from the global majority has increased in the NHS workforce, there is still an underrepresentation of individuals from ethnic backgrounds which can contribute to racial discrimination. A lack of diversity can result in a limited understanding of cultural nuances, perpetuate stereotypes, and impede patient-provider rapport and trust, which is needed to carry out fair treatment.

To understand these effects further, we asked 2,000 people their thoughts on health inequalities in the UK.

What did our research find?

Our research concluded that there is still an unconscious bias within the UK healthcare system to people of different ethnic backgrounds. In fact, 31% of people of the global majority have been forced to access private healthcare specifically due to misdiagnosis and long wait times, compared to 15% of white people. Whilst this discrimination may not have malicious intent, there are systemic issues leading to disparity in people’s ability to access healthcare in the UK. Unconscious biases are implicit associations or stereotypes individuals hold without being consciously aware of them. They can influence healthcare professionals' attitudes, behaviours, and the decision-making processes, leading to differing treatment based on race or ethnicity.

Studies have shown that people from the global majority may face barriers in accessing healthcare services, including longer waiting times, difficulties in obtaining appointments, and language barriers. Delays in efficient and effective treatment can lead to delayed diagnosis and even the potential for a misdiagnosis. We found that, when a potential misdiagnosis is made, 96% of white people will take action, such as getting a second opinion, compared to 89% of people with mixed heritage and 86% of Arab people.

The health inequalities caused by racial bias can have dire effects on the health of ethnic minorities. As well as stemming a lack of trust and confidence in the system, it can also take a psychological and emotional toll on those who have faced racial discrimination. 67% of white people would feel confident approaching their doctor with a physical ailment compared to 53% for mixed people, which could lead to potential damaging health consequences.

The importance of self-advocacy

Addressing health imbalances among people of the global majority requires a comprehensive approach that includes efforts to improve healthcare access, promote culturally sensitive care, increase diversity in the healthcare workforce, and address systemic racism and discrimination. These actions can help promote health equality and ensure all individuals, no matter their race or ethnicity, have equal opportunities for optimal health and well-being.

With our self-advocacy hub, we have a range of resources for advocacy support. Our aim is to raise awareness of racial discrimination to healthcare professionals, and the public, and highlight the importance of self-advocacy. To be your own advocate in a health setting, it’s important to be informed about your health condition and what support you should expect to receive from a healthcare provider. We highly recommend taking the time to gather reliable information through research, so you can have informed discussions with healthcare professionals and be clear about what your healthcare plan is.

Here are some valuable resources to help you feel confident in a healthcare setting:

  • Mary Seacole House: Liverpool’s leading mental health charity for BAMER (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic & Refugee)
  • Saheliya: offers mental health and well-being support for those in the Edinburgh and Glasgow area
  • Diversity Trust: promoting equality, diversity, and inclusion for all

Make sure you actively engage in the conversation and ask for clarification when necessary, ensuring you are sharing your preferences and thoughts. If you feel that your doctor hasn’t listened to you, or you weren’t given the correct care and support, don't hesitate to seek a second opinion or ask for further explanation. It’s important to make sure you’re listened to and understood.

How we can help

If you believe you’ve received substandard medical care or have suffered further health issues because of clinical negligence, get in touch with our experts at Slater and Gordon. Our lawyers work closely with a range of medical professionals, who support us in pinpointing where your level of care fell below standard.

Your initial contact will be with one of our dedicated medical negligence advisors, who will gather all the necessary details about your case. To obtain further information, contact our medical negligence lawyers today on 0330 041 5869, or contact us online.

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