Hospital’s Decision to Honor Racist Demand Ignites Controversy

What should a hospital do when a bigoted patient insists that no people of color be involved in his or her care? Do you stand firmly by your anti-discrimination policy and ignore the racist request? Or is it better to give in and spare your minority staff the possibility of an ugly, perhaps even dangerous, confrontation?

This was the dilemma faced by Abington Memorial Hospital, a magnet hospital in the Philadelphia area, this past September. Unfortunately, the facility chose to take the second approach–a decision that set off a firestorm of controversy, not only among the hospital’s staff but also in the community at large.

According to a news report in the Philadelphia Inquirer (“Why a Local Hospital Gave in to a Racist Demand,” by Oliver Prichard), the trouble started when the husband of a pregnant woman who had been admitted to the maternity unit demanded that only white employees be allowed to enter his wife’s room. Apparently without consulting upper management, supervisors on the unit advised all African-American employees–including doctors, nurses and service workers–that it would be best to steer clear of the patient’s room during her stay in the hospital, which lasted several days.

Why would a health care facility choose to honor such a request when it had a policy in place clearly stating “employees will be assigned to patient services without regard to the race, creed, color, national origin or religion of either the patient or employee”? According to a hospital official quoted in the Inquirer article, the supervisors had good intentions: They simply wanted to protect the black employees from a potential confrontation. “The staff informed our African-American employees that there was a volatile situation, and they suggested that they not interact with the family,” Vice President Meg McGoldrick told the paper. “In some cases, they actually told employees that they probably ought not to go into the room.”

Not surprisingly, many of the 508-bed hospital’s employees were offended and outraged by the incident. The Philadelphia office of the NAACP received several complaints. Barry Morrison, director of the Philadelphia office of the Anti-Defamation League, called the decision “inexcusable. I don’t see why and how a hospital could justify accommodating a request that the professionals attending to a patient be of a particular background. It’s demoralizing for the people who work there.”

In an open letter sent to all employees and posted prominently on the hospital’s Web site, hospital President and CEO Richard L. Jones, Jr., apologized for the incident, which he called “misguided” and “morally reprehensible.” He noted that “appropriate disciplinary action has been taken with the staff involved” and that several initiatives had been launched to ensure better enforcement of the anti-discrimination policy. “Racism and bigotry cannot and will not be tolerated [here],” Jones concluded. “We continue to seek ways to help heal those affected, and to strive to do better in the future.”