DETROIT — 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. Now two black nurses are suing the hospital, claiming it bowed to his illegal demands.
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 and public health. "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 veteran nurse at Flint's Hurley Medical Center, filed the first complaint 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 is now a federal lawsuit. In a statement earlier this week, Hurley President Melany Gavulic denied Battle's claim, saying the father was told that his request could not be granted. Gavulic said the swastika tattoo "created anger and outrage in our staff," and supervisors raised safety concerns.