Standing up to the bystander effect in medicine

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Anti-Asian hate crimes increased 878 per cent in 2020 according to a Vancouver Police Department third-quarter key performance indicator report. With racial tensions running high, our Asian Canadian physician colleagues are on the frontline of two wars: fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and racism.

Speaking up for our Asian colleagues and patients is one of the ways we can create allyship and resilience. We need to overcome the bystander effect where people are less likely to come to the aid of a victim when there are other people present. Those messages were reinforced at a recent joint VPSA/VCH event by facilitators Amil Reddy, a Canadian certified inclusion professional, and Dr. Katharine Hudson, an emergency physician working at Richmond and Powell River hospitals. Their presentation on allyship and resilience focused on microaggressions in health care and on interrupting the bystander effect.

Six forms of allyship and resilience were identified:

1. Courage to speak/step up.
2. Negotiate your relationships to vulnerability – challenging the status quo can be hard
3. Let others self-determine.
4. Reimagine belonging—it’s not one size fits all.
5. Listen to understand, not to respond.
6. Cultivate curiosity—educate yourself and others.

Using these tools, the facilitators led attendees through a fictional scenario wherein a racialized physician with a long name is asked, “Is there something shorter that I can call you?” Pronouncing names correctly is one way we can practice anti-racism and allyship.

“We need to recognize that it takes courage to say something,” said Reddy. “Taking a stand and speaking up are the truest forms of allyship. One person can make a difference.”
During sessions in break out rooms, small groups of attendees had the opportunity to apply the six forms of allyship and resilience to two other realistic scenarios. Each situation was later debriefed.

In the “Pink Collar” scenario, patients often refer to a senior resident who is a young Asian woman as a nurse or by her first name. When she is supervising male students, many patients appear to look to the student for a second opinion prior to taking her advice. Repeatedly questioning this physician’s legitimacy is an example of a microaggression. Research shows that this form of discrimination can lead to physicians feeling undervalued, can affect learning outcomes, as well as and burnout rates.

In the final scenario “Culture Fit,” a hiring committee is choosing between two excellent candidates. Some committee members mention the Asian female candidate may not be a good “culture fit” or have as much “leadership potential” as the other candidate. Advocating for objective candidate assessments rather than relying on gestalt is a way to counteract affinity bias and to promote diversity and an equitable hiring process. One way to reframe this concept is to consider hiring someone who brings diversity of perspective to your team as a culture ‘add’!

Feedback from attendees was positive with comments such as “fantastic session,” “great topic, great talk and skills,” “valuable learning,” and “wonderful reflection” filling the chat box.

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