This site is intended for health professionals only

More than half of IMG doctors experience ‘everyday racism’, survey finds

by Anna Colivicchi
13 November 2023

Share this article

A UK-wide survey of around 2,000 doctors has revealed that more than half of International Medical Graduates (IMGs) experience everyday instances of racism at work.

Research conducted by the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland (MDDUS) found that 58% of IMGs experienced ‘thinly veiled’ incidents of racism and ‘microaggressions’ since they began practising medicine in the UK.

MDDUS also said that a substantial majority (72%) did not report the incidents as ‘they did not believe they would be taken seriously’.

A separate survey for MDDUS also found that just 9% of the public said they ‘believed racist microaggressions are a frequent problem in the NHS’ and fewer than one-in-five claimed to have witnessed it.

One IMG doctor who responded to the survey said: ‘I accidentally heard two patients comparing white and IMG doctors. Basically, talking negative things about foreign doctors. Their words broke my heart.’

Another said they were told: ‘For someone who looks like that, you speak really good English.’

Last week, MDDUS launched its campaign ‘We Hear You’ to highlight the impact of racist microaggressions on IMG doctors and how concerns about so many of these incidents ‘go unheard by senior management in the NHS’.

It is calling on the GMC to use its influence to change the way concerns about racism are reported.

Dr John Holden, MDDUS chief medical officer, said: ‘International Medical Graduates play a vital role in the NHS. It is a matter of huge concern that so many face abuse and unwarranted distrust from patients and colleagues.

‘It has been shocking to see in detail the number and type of persistent racist microaggressions this group of doctors is subject to on a daily basis.

‘The fact so many IMGs have little or no faith in the process for reporting their concerns should serve as a call to action for the entire healthcare system.

‘This is especially the case for the GMC, given its concern to make whistleblowing effective.’

Dr Sai Pillarisetti, chairman of the British International Doctors’ Association (BIDA) Postgraduate Doctors Forum, told our sister publication Pulse that the survey highlights ‘some of the real and consistent discrimination’ experienced by IMGs working in the NHS.

He said: ‘Although we are seeing more IMGs than local graduates joining the workforce every year, there is little to no concrete action being taken to address their wellbeing and ensure they are entering a positive and welcoming atmosphere while at work. 

‘It is simply not acceptable to merely increase the availability of the PLAB exams and recruit doctors this way without first addressing the discrimination they face on a regular basis in the workplace.

‘IMGs have proven time and time again that they are the backbone of the NHS – it would not be an exaggeration to say that the service would collapse if it was not for this group of doctors.

‘Similar to how we have guardians of safe working, there must also be a senior designated officer who can escalate complaints of discrimination, racism and microagressions. 

‘IMGs that join our workforce are as passionate about the NHS as we are and if we want them to stay we have to collectively make a much greater effort to ensure they feel safe and supported.’

Dr Kamal Sidhu, chair of the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin’s (BAPIO) GP Forum, said these findings further add to ‘the plethora of the existing evidence’ around racism and discriminatory behaviour experienced by IMGs.

‘There is a toxic cocktail out there of a health system that is overwhelmed, failing support systems for the workforce, perverse immigration policies and increasingly populist and anti-immigrant sentiments.

‘IMGs are the sitting ducks for complaints and at the mercy of the regulators in this chaos. We are seeing an increase in complaints due to waiting times, system pressures which exacerbate the existing disparities and hardships faced by this cohort of NHS workers who have supported the health system for decades now.

‘There is little capacity in the system for support for these doctors. There is a dire need for all involved to work together to make genuine and real progress.’

RCGP chair Professor Kamila Hawthorne said the survey results ‘are really disheartening’.

‘International medical graduates deliver a huge amount of patient care right across the NHS and they must be able to do so without experiencing racism; any report that this isn’t the case is unacceptable.

‘It’s also vital that when someone reports racism, it is taken seriously. We all have a responsibility to recognise racism continues to be a very real issue and work together to address it.

‘We have recruited international medical graduates to come and work here, and it is the responsibility of all of us to make sure they feel welcomed and supported.’

Last year, the BMA warned that racism faced by ethnic minority doctors is pushing them to leave the profession in what could become a mass exodus.

The findings

  • While 58% of IMG doctors have been subject to racist microaggressions, 72% of that group did not report the racist incident or incidences
  • 65% said that they did not report their concerns as they didn’t think it would be taken seriously
  • A further 7% said they didn’t report their concerns as they did not know the process, and 41% worried it might impact them professionally
  • Of all the doctors who responded to the survey, 64% said they’d witnessed a colleague being subject to racist microaggressions
  • But only 24% said they’d reported the incident with 51% saying they did not believe it would be taken seriously
  • Overall, 68% of doctors said they did not believe the public thought there was an issue with their colleagues being subject to racist microaggressions.

A separate survey conducted for MDDUS into the public’s view of the issue found that:

  • The issue is not well understood, with 27% saying they did not know if racist microaggressions against doctors were prevalent and a further 26% saying they believed they were only occasional
  • Almost 40% said they were slightly or not at all concerned by racist microaggressions against doctors
  • 66% said they had not witnessed racist microaggressions against doctors
  • 9% said they believed racist microaggressions were a frequently experienced problem for doctors
  • When asked to consider the consequences of racist microaggressions on doctors, 45% said it would create stress and impact their mental health, 43% said it would decrease motivation and satisfaction in the workplace, and 38% said it would decrease the sense of belonging at work.

Source: MDDUS

A version of this story was first published on our sister publication Pulse