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Penn State Health strengthens bias policies to support physicians, staff, learners

Medical staff professionalism does not require care providers to accept discrimination.

That is the message from Penn State Health to faculty, staff and learners as it implements a systemwide patient bias prevention policy. The goal is to provide employees protection from patients’ intolerant actions and directives based on background, race or religion.

“While patient care always comes first, unwanted and unacceptable behavior from patients and their family members based on aspects of difference or diversity will not be tolerated,” said Lynette Chappell-Williams, vice president and chief diversity officer, Penn State Health.

The new policy follows on the heels of another protection Penn State Health put in place for employees, students and patients in November 2020 ― a zero tolerance policy of any employee who demonstrates bias against another individual because of any aspect of their diversity. The consequence is immediate termination of employment.

Communicating the health care system’s patient bias policy to employees, and providing education to staff and students on how to respond to patient bias or discrimination are goals of Penn State Health’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for early 2021, Chappell-Williams said. As part of that work, her office held a virtual national forum on patient bias prevention on Dec. 9 that included leaders from Penn State and 130 other health care systems and hospitals throughout the U.S. The group discussed best practices for supporting physicians, faculty, staff and learners.

Emily Whitgob, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in California, told the group about her experience as a second-year resident when a patient said they did not want a first-year resident working with them because her name sounded Jewish. Whitgob said she and the first-year resident were shocked, and she was unprepared for dealing with that type of bias issue.

Others in the forum talked about Muslim women physicians being scorned by patients because they wear a hijab and bias against other health care providers because English is not their first language or because they are people of color.

Chappell-Williams said her office is working with leaders to implement a new systemwide patient bias prevention policy that follows the ethics of patient care the health care system and College of Medicine deem paramount to their mission. It also will spell out procedures for working with patients to provide reasonable accommodations, while creating safe, trusting workplaces and learning environments for staff and learners.

She said she wants to make sure staff and learners have the tools they need to be united, support one another and get help when faced with discrimination and bias. One way is through upstanding, when someone questions a comment in a positive way, allowing the person who said it to consider its impact on others.

“Our goal is to make sure physicians, nurses, faculty, staff and learners know we are here for them and will support them if they experience aggression or biases from patients and their families and visitors,” she said. “The aim is really mutual respect and understanding between medical staff and patients.”

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