Viewpoint: diversity in medicine

Have you ever been told you don’t look like a doctor? The answer is not to change how you look, but for society’s outdated attitudes to catch up with a diverse profession. By BMA representative body deputy chair Latifa Patel

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 16 April 2021
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Comportment. It is not a word one hears often. But when I opened Twitter recently, it was trending – and I had no idea why.

As an intermittent tweeter, I sometimes find myself in the dark about the most recent #MedTwitter discussions. Most of the time this doesn’t phase me. However, when an issue completely takes over my timeline and my personal dictionary is presented with an unfamiliar term I feel forced to do some digging.

For those not on Twitter, to summarise in a few words, it was suggested that a female doctor may have been mistaken as a nurse owing to her ‘comportment’, or her behaviour. Well, that was news to me – and it was news to almost all of #Medtwitter, thankfully.

I reflected back to one of the many times I had been mistaken for something other than a doctor. The number of times I would introduce myself to a family as the doctor looking after the child only to hear them tell their friend on the phone that the nurse was in their room.

Or, there were the occasions when the nurse asked me if I could action all the TTOs thinking I was the ward pharmacist. And then there was the time one of the senior doctors thought I was part of the domestic team because I regularly emptied the mess bin on nights.

If doctors were expected to display a specific ‘comportment’, what would it even look like? Would it be taught? Examined on? Who decides what ‘comportment’ would be apt for a doctor? Thankfully, this isn’t the case.

I don’t mind being mistaken for another profession but I do mind not being recognised as a doctor. And I know it happens more to women than men. Doctors aren’t superhuman or different from the general population – our ‘comportment’ varies as much as the rest of society’s. It isn’t our ‘comportment’ driving these discussions – it is the observer’s bias.

The comportment discussion reminded me of many of the reasons I first became involved in the BMA – and the values that drive me in my position as deputy chair of the representative body.

One of the BMA’s aims is to make the medical profession reflective of the society we live in – and the patients we look after. We should never forget that medicine is best when it is a partnership. We know simply telling patients and families what they should be doing is less effective than working with them – when care is bespoke and personalised. If we are to truly understand our patients’ needs we should reflect them far better.

In this month’s issue of The Doctor we spoke to a GP in Leicester running a scheme where doctors call patients who have not taken up their offers of jabs.

The difference this trusting relationship makes – a relationship where doctors do not feel external to the communities in which they work – is vital.

As a foundation year 1, I was fortunate to be able to join the BMA’s equality and diversity committee, now called the equality, diversity and inclusion advisory group, which aims to celebrate and support diversity in medicine.

The group will be open to new members in July this year and doctors are able to nominate themselves to take part. If you feel passionate about these issues get in touch with the group, speak to myself and Helena or even run for a position later this year.

One other area where we need to take action – and where the ‘comportment’ debate is particularly apt – is around sexism. The 2019 NHS staff survey reported the highest levels of sexism to date and we are keen to find out about doctors’ experiences and how we can look to address these problems.

Dr Patel can be contacted directly through Twitter at @drlatifapatel