The UK’s healthcare system is world-beating, and has been since the formal institution of the National Health Service by a Labour government in the aftermath of the Second World War. But while the UK’s standing in global healthcare is unassailable, even by critical damages caused by disastrous funding decisions and the UK’s exit from the EU, there remains a stain on its reputation.
Discrimination takes a large number of pernicious forms, and the UK’s health service is by no means immune to them. Indeed, racial biases are endemic to UK healthcare, with patients of colour suffering at the hands of systemic racism and resulting gaps in treatment, healthcare outcomes and even career opportunities. But what specific forms do these disparities take?
Racial Disparity – The Figures
Racism is a scourge of the nation, and one that is always being affirmatively targeted in one shape or form. Its existence in health services and systems is not theoretical, nor solved through simple discussion. The pervasiveness of racial discrimination, implicit and explicit, is borne out by the facts. A 2022 report into healthcare outcomes for minority ethnic groups in the UK found that “ethnic inequalities in health outcomes are evident at every stage throughout the life course, from birth to death[.]”
The medical cohort that staff healthcare facilities are not immune from this either. A recent BMA study revealed that BAME doctors did not feel there was a culture of inclusion in their workplaces; more shockingly, it revealed that 85% of doctors who died of COVID-19 were BAME.
There are numerous factors at play that bring about these shocking statistics. The 2022 report cited earlier found that many of these factors traced back to interpersonal racism, and the enshrining of such racism in policy. Racist interactions on a primary care level prevent many BAME patients from accessing the right care, while cultural disconnects and implicit biases encourage some doctors to wilfully ignore symptoms or complaints despite damage to their patients. Meanwhile, structural racism is reinforced by inefficient NHS administration.
As a result of the above, healthcare outcomes are disproportionately worse for ethnic minority patients in the UK. The risk of enduring medical negligence is higher for BAME patients, and while legal avenues are available to recoup costs, these avenues are not the ideal route by which recourse should be sought. Indeed, in instances where cancer has been missed on account of structural prejudice, the better outcome would have been never to experience such indignity. On a national level, the reality is mortality rates are disproportionately high for those of colour, whether black women giving birth or cancer patients.
Policy Initiatives and Reforms
The 2022 report was a fundamental step in seeking to redress the balance with regard to healthcare inequality in and around the NHS. The deep-rooted natural of structural racism makes it difficult to equitably root out, making for a long road ahead. Localised initiatives are being run by hospitals and primary care facilities to educate staff and take firm stances on equality, but much more is needed before ethnic minority bodies can be truly safe in a broken Britain.