It’s been called one of medicine’s “open secrets” — allowing patients to refuse treatment by a doctor or nurse of another race.
In the latest example, a white man with a swastika tattoo insisted that black nurses not be allowed to touch his newborn. That led several black nurses to sue the Michigan hospital, claiming it bowed to his illegal demands, and a rapid settlement in one of their lawsuits.
The Michigan cases are among several lawsuits filed in recent years that highlight this seldom-discussed issue, which quietly persists almost 60 years after the start of the civil-rights movement.
The American Medical Association’s ethics code bars doctors from refusing to treat people based on race, gender and other criteria, but there are no specific policies for handling race-based requests from patients.
“In general, I don’t think honoring prejudicial preferences ... is morally justifiable” for a health-care organization, said Dr. Susan Goold, a University of Michigan professor of internal medicine. “That said, you can’t cure bigotry. ... There may be times when grudgingly acceding to a patient’s strongly held preferences is morally OK.”
Those times could include patients who have been so traumatized — by rape or combat, for instance — that accommodating their request would be preferable to forcing on them a caregiver whose mere presence might aggravate the situation, she said.
Tonya Battle, a 25-year nurse at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, filed the first lawsuit last month against the hospital and a nursing manager, claiming a note posted on an assignment clipboard read, “No African-American nurse to take care of baby.” She says the note was later removed but black nurses weren’t assigned to care for the baby for about a month because of their race.
That case, which was recently joined by three other nurses, was settled this week.
Hospital officials said in a statement Friday that the incident was “triggered by conduct which is not consistent with Hurley’s policies” and that it “fundamentally opposes racial discrimination.”
No details about the settlement were released.
Earlier this week, Hurley President Melany Gavulic denied Battle’s claim, saying the father was told that his request couldn’t be granted.
Gavulic said the swastika tattoo “created anger and outrage in our staff,” and supervisors raised safety concerns.
The Michigan cases follow a 2010 decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the federal Civil Rights Act prohibits nursing homes from making staffing decisions for nursing assistants based on residents’ racial preferences.