Muslim American Physicians Face Rising Discrimination

“Alarming” new study shows discrimination against Muslim doctors has increased during the past decade

By Sandra Whitehead

March/April 2023

The first study to examine workplace discrimination against Muslim American physicians found that nearly half of them experienced more scrutiny at work than their peers and that nearly one in four experienced religious discrimination during their careers. Almost 10% of the physicians surveyed said patients had refused their care because they are Muslim, and 14% said they were facing discrimination at their current workplace.

That was a decade ago. 

According to Aasim I. Padela, M.D., M.Sc. (professor, Medical College of Wisconsin), lead author of the 2013-14 study, the situation has worsened. He is now sharing the results of a similar research conducted in 2021. The new study, “The Impact of Practicing Both Medicine and Religion: Muslim Identity as a Predictor of Discrimination, Accommodation, and Career Outcomes in Academic Medicine (Academic Medicine, November 2022), “shows a lot of alarming data,” he told Islamic Horizons. “The bad stuff got worse!”

A comparison of results shows that in the past 10 years, more Muslim physicians are experiencing religious discrimination, job turnover and having patients refuse their care because of their Muslim identity. “Muslims working in healthcare are struggling,” Padela exclaimed. “Given that diversity and inclusion are big topics in hospital systems and healthcare these days, we hope the dissemination of this research in academic circles, Muslim circles and hopefully policy circles, will lead to improvements,” said the professor of emergency medicine, bioethics and the medical humanities, and chairperson and director of the Initiative on Islam and Medicine.

Health care systems need an equitable workplace for Muslims

“Despite the relatively small size of the Muslim population in the country [just over 1%], Muslims play a really important role in the medical field and in our health care system,” said Meira Neggaz, executive director of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, an institution seeking to develop objective, solution-oriented research about challenges and opportunities facing Muslim Americans. Neggaz and Padela spoke during October 2022 at the national webinar “Advancing Equity for Muslim Physicians in the Healthcare Workforce,” co-hosted by the Initiative on Islam and Medicine, the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, the Medical College of Wisconsin and American Muslim Health Professionals. She cited Michigan, where Muslims make up just under 3% of the state’s population, yet are more than 15% of its licensed medical doctors, 10% of its pharmacists and 7% of its dentists.

Members of the research team: Benish Baqai, B.S., Lauren Nickel, Ph.D., Laila Azam, Ph.D., M.B.A., Aasim I. Padela, M.D., M.Sc., Omar Davila, M.P.H., and, not pictured, Sohad Murrar, Ph.D. (Photo (c) Laila Azam)

Not only are the percentages of Muslims in medicine high, but their accomplishments and impacts are also significant. She noted, “Muslim doctors are not simply practicing medicine. They are often responsible for making important innovations and improvements across the entire medical field.” Muslim doctors have developed new treatments and many provide charitable medical care, she added. “So, meeting the needs of Muslim physicians and providing an equitable, non-discriminatory workplace is essential, not just for the individual Muslim physicians themselves, but also for our healthcare system.”

Yet the ongoing discrimination is “both interpersonal and institutional,” she added. “It takes place between people in informal interactions, but is also structural and institutionalized.”

Building on groundbreaking research

In 2021, Padela repeated the quantitative research of his groundbreaking 2013 study and added a qualitative component: conducting interviews to better understand the context of participants’ responses. 

Since national databases of physicians don’t collect religious affiliation, Padela’s team drew on the membership roster of national clinician organizations that explicitly integrate religious identity. In 2013, a random sample was taken from the Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA). In 2021, they drew a convenience sample from IMANA, the American Muslim Health Professionals and the U.S. Muslim Physician Network. 

In national surveys of Muslim physicians:

• In 2013, 19% reported sometimes experiencing discrimination in the workplace, while 5% reported often or always encountering discrimination during their careers. In 2021, those numbers rose to 41% and 12%, respectively.

• In 2013, 24% reported being passed over for professional advancement because of their religion. In 2021, that number rose to 57%.

•  In 2013, 7% reported leaving a job due to discrimination. In 2021, that number rose to 32%.

The research also addressed whether respondents agreed that their workplace accommodates their religious identity (e.g., allowing time and an appropriate place for prayer, accommodations during Ramadan and time off for celebrating religious holidays). In both 2013 and 2021, about three-fourths of respondents agreed their workplace did make accommodations. However, interviews revealed that “notions of accommodation focused on their own initiatives rather than institutional outreach.”

Psychological toll on Muslim physicians

“The impact of this obviously may take a toll on mental health and anxiety of people experiencing these issues,” Neggaz said. “We know from our research that after the 2016 election, when there was a lot of heated political rhetoric about Muslims, there was a significant amount of stress and anxiety and fear for personal safety. Most notably, almost half of Muslim women and more than 30% of Muslim men feared for their personal or family safety. A sizable number felt stress and anxiety to the point of possibly seeking mental health support.”

She noted that other researchers have found that groups who have been targeted or hear negative things about their group can internalize those negative aspects. “This can have a huge effect on mental health, on self-esteem, identity, performance and motivation,” she declared.

Padela and his team’s research demonstrates that as Muslim physicians put greater importance on their religion, they experience corresponding multiple negative outcomes, including higher levels of workplace discrimination and depression, as well as less accommodation in the workplace for prayers. However, it also finds that, “on a positive note, greater involvement in religious congregational activities is linked to lower perceptions of workplace discrimination and discrimination from patients, as well as positive perceptions of being religiously accommodated at work. Religious importance appears to attract negative experiences, while greater religious practice seems to buffer against them.”

In other words, the “study documents how Muslim religious identity negatively impacts workplace experiences and well-being in academic medicine. However, religious practice mitigates negative outcomes. Thus, there is an urgent need for academic medical centers to ameliorate workplace discrimination and pursue policies of workplace accommodation for physicians with strong religious identities. Indeed, the goals of workplace equity and inclusion demand so.”

As @aasim_padela tweeted on Nov. 12th last year, the upshot of this research is that “greater religious importance associates with #discrimination from patients, lack of accommodation for prayer at work, and depression. But engaging in congregational religious activities can buffer some harms of #discrimination. We must allow time/space for prayer!”

Sandra Whitehead is an author, journalist and long-time adjunct instructor of journalism and media studies in the Diederich College of Communication, Marquette University, Wisc.

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