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Tackling Islamaphobia and Healthcare Inequality within the NHS

Have you ever been sidelined by healthcare professionals or been a victim of discrimination in the NHS?

If yes, you are not alone. According to a report released by the Muslim Doctors Association (MDA), 8 in 10 experienced negative assumptions in relation to their religion, and 7 in 10 reported negative stereotypes perceived or through comments heard by others [i].

Religious bias, profiling and other barriers affect how the Muslim community interact with the healthcare industry, and as a result, many of us neglect our physical and mental wellbeing.

Despite these barriers, there are groups working towards a more equal footing for all.

The award-winning nonprofit MDA are just one medical organisation working towards bridging inequalities within the healthcare industry and tackling Islamaphobia within the healthcare sector.

Who are the MDA?

They’re a female led-group which began in 2004 as a small community organisation. They started by visiting the community to conduct health checks and workshops. They were the first organisation to provide life support and first aid training in mosques.

From this, they’ve grown into a national organisation where they do a multitude of work to eradicate Islamaphobia in healthcare settings, bridge the gap between the healthcare system and service users and create effective policy change.

We spoke to Hina, Chair of MDA about the organisation.

What does the MDA do?

Our main work is in three areas. One is health promotion, which is the bread and butter of our work. This means going out into communities, raising awareness of important health issues, what services are available and how to engage with healthcare service.

As we know, digital exclusion is also a big issue in the community. That’s why outreach work is so important.

We aim to provide information in ways that are culturally sensitive around topics like cancer, women’s health, mental health. The NHS will produce information but it doesn’t always resonate with the community. It’s reframing that in ways that people can relate to.

The second is around health policy. We’ve been doing health promotion for almost 20 years and we’re able to provide insights in the community to policymakers and decision-makers.

The third area of our work is brand equality, diversity and inclusion in the NHS. In particular, focusing on Islamophobia, and how Islamophobia manifests in healthcare services and how to support the workforce who may experience Islamophobia.”

Could you talk to me a bit more about what kind of policy work you’re doing to change the inequalities?

During the pandemic, we produced a number of reports. The first one was published when there were no initial reports regarding the Muslim community and the risk of being disproportionately impacted by COVID.

The report systematically laid out why minorities and Muslims were more likely to be affected by the pandemic and what it would mean, before a lot of later public health and government reports came out.

Even before the medical community understood why Muslims were dying more, I was seeing colleagues saying ‘Could it be diabetes? Could it be vitamin D? What dose of vitamin D should we be giving patients?’

It was never about Diabetes or Vitamin D, it’s about social determinants of health, the fact that these communities are disadvantaged, they live in housing conditions which put them at risk, they work in industries that put them at risk, they have underlying healthcare issues and they don’t seek health care services which puts them at risk.

“There’s this concept called cultural taxation, which is the exploitation of communities and smaller community organisations. We’re providing all this important information for policymaking, but it’s all expected to be done in our spare time. It’s not resourced or sustainable. That’s another area of campaigning that we’ve been doing.

Discrimination through an intersectional lens

It’s really important that we look at how intersectionality plays a role in our experiences within the healthcare system. Oftentimes, Muslims can be painted with the same brush regarding our experiences, when this isn’t the case. Whilst our faith unites us, we have different cultures, lifestyles, ethnicities and needs that make us different.

We spoke to Aisha, a radiologist, regarding her experiences with Islamaphobia in the workplace.

I have experienced some racism which predominantly happens with males. It tends to happen on night shifts when the patient is drunk, which is quite scary as we have limited staff at those times. I’m faced with situations where I can possibly be alone. HOWEVER, ‘BECAUSE I DON’T WEAR A SCARF, I KNOW I HAVE A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE TO THOSE WHO DO.

Hina also agrees that intersectionality is something that needs to be considered more.

In 2017 there was a high-profile case of a black hijabi paediatrician who was doing a shift in a hospital. There were a lot of issues on one of her shifts and as a result, a child died, where she was initially struck off.

It highlighted what intersectional discrimination can look like and how tragic it can be. Through MDA we’ve interviewed Muslim healthcare professionals, men and male and female, hijabi and non-hijabi, and done work around around exploring their experiences of being Muslim healthcare professionals in the NHS, and what that means for them.

When we talk about discrimination, people focus on the interpersonal element, but it’s much more than that. It’s how it manifests on an institutional level and the impact that it has on the individual.

One of the big things that we worked on was around the stereotyping of Muslim women. During the pandemic, we constantly saw news headlines about ethnic minorities not following the rules.

Before, we would just see niqabi women in training modules about FGM which was problematic. We complained about that. If you want communities to engage with health promotion and follow public health advice, you need to give out positive messages.

Negative stereotyping is going to alienate the community further; it’s going to create more stigma and mistrust.

With the combined effort, we saw a shift to more positive imaging of hijabi women, which is on the back of a lot of advocacy work that’s gone into highlighting the stereotyping of Muslim women.

“We published a report in November last year in Islamophobia awareness month, which highlights how prevalent these experiences are, what they look like, and importantly, what impact they have on people.

Excluded on the front line: Discrimination, Racism and Islamaphobia in the NHS [report via MDA: 2021]

We produced a coherent analysis of why the community was more at risk, and one of the key recommendations was we need to have health promotion that is contextually and culturally relevant. We need to ask leaders how they’re engaging with ethnic minority media outlets via TV, print and radio.

When we talk about equality, diversity and inclusion, faith has been neglected. We have been vocal about the need to recognise faith as a protected characteristic, support people being able to bring themselves to work, and support people to practice at work.

I’m really pleased to see the conversation that’s happening within the healthcare service around the importance of faith. Traditionally, the health sector has felt like a very secular atheist-dominated space, and people, especially amongst medics. People don’t feel comfortable talking about faith. I’m glad to see that that is shifting.

To find the full report that MDA produced, click here.

If you have ever been a victim of healthcare discrimination or Islamaphobia, you can report it here.

*Interview has been edited for clarity*

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