By: Escher Walcott
Although I would consider London to be a multicultural city, this has not always been reflected within certain industries. In fact, within the medical field, black people are of an extreme minority, as they are exposed to racial discrimination and disparity.
In light of this, I interviewed my mother, Dr. Judy Bennett, on her career as a GP Partner of Cavesham Group Practice in Kentish Town, North London. Despite being one of the very few black doctors in London, she has never let that deter her from working to the top of her profession, where she proudly remains after 35 years.
What made you want to become a General Practitioner?
I had aunts, who were nurses, and from a young age, I saw them at special community events helping people, making them better. I had a good GP, but I also knew I didn’t want to be like him in a way, as though he was kind, he spent most sessions writing prescriptions and I wanted to be a doctor that talked to people and listened to them first. Not everything has to be medicalized right away.
What was the reaction from your elders when you said you wanted to pursue medicine?
I wanted to practice medicine from the age of 7, and so my parents were very encouraging. The teacher I had at the time was very supportive and pleased however later on in secondary school, the teachers were patronizing – I was the only one who wanted to be a doctor in my class, and I don’t think they took it seriously.
Did you feel pre-judged on the basis of your ethnic background at the beginning of your career?
I didn’t care. I knew what I wanted to do. When I was applying to medical school, I had to convince a board of about 10 people that I had what took to become a doctor. I suppose they could see something in me and understood that it was a career I always wanted to pursue. I didn’t ever feel like I didn’t have much chance, therefore I shouldn’t try. We were always brought up that if you wanted something, you work hard, and you try for it. Don’t let anyone make you feel you’re not good enough to do something.
Were there many black medical students at the time you were studying? How did you feel about the ratio against white students?
In my medical school, just 1. At school, my sister in the year above me was the first black person ever to attend, and I was the second. So, I didn’t find medical school daunting in that sense, although it would have been nice to have some diversity. When I started in 1978, there weren’t many Asian students either, now there’s a high proportion.
“Many black people go into nursing – which is great, but we don’t see enough black people as doctors. In my day, the black people that did want to get into medical school often weren’t considered due to discrimination”
Has the landscape of black doctors changed since you first became a GP?
Unfortunately, not enough. I teach at my practice and very few black students come to us. There are very few black GPs in North London, South London there might be more. Over the years I’ve joined the African-Caribbean Doctors Society just to try and be more in contact with those doctors. I would have hoped by now, 35 years on, there would have been more, but unfortunately, there are not.
Why do you think this is?
I think it stems from schooling, in that black people aren’t encouraged to go into medicine as they’re not considered the typical group to do so, which is wrong. They don’t see black role models doing a job that they might otherwise aspire to. Many black people go into nursing – which is great, but we don’t see enough black people as doctors. In my day, the black people that did want to get into medical school often weren’t considered due to discrimination, so that didn’t help.
Have you ever felt discriminated against by patients or colleagues?
Not by colleagues. I’m fortunate that my practice has always been diverse. I haven’t experienced racism from patients in many years. As a partner, I probably avoid more discrimination from patients than other black salary doctors, unfortunately.
Early on in my career, my husband and I were stopped driving to a visit by the police in the middle of the night. They wanted me to show my doctor’s ID and rummage in my work bag and car and because my husband questioned this, they told him to get in the back of the police car. ‘How would you like it if your child couldn’t breathe and the doctor wasn’t there to save him?’ I asked and they finally let us go.
What has been your experience as a GP working through this pandemic? Has your passion for the profession changed at all?
I’ve always known what I do is important and now patients say ‘thank you’ to me in sessions and really express their appreciation for me. It’s difficult working from home because you want to be in the practice face-to-face with patients. For some, seeing their doctor helps reassure them so it’s trickier doing our job, but it hasn’t changed the way I feel about it. I appreciate more the privilege of being a doctor.
Being a GP, you get to know families intimately and they let you into their homes, so you see all aspects of people which you don’t see with a lot of jobs. It’s very stressful and more tiring, but I’ve never wanted to throw in the towel.
Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the GP industry?
Every year, the government decides new rules on how doctors should treat their patients medically. Since Covid-19, they’ve removed a lot of these regulations, so now when a patient comes through the door, we spend less time ticking boxes and more time giving them the appropriate treatment.
The General Practice is underfunded, so we need more resources in order to hire more staff, provide better care for our patients, and improve our working environments. The medical industry needs more diversity also. If you’re a doctor working in a culturally mixed area, having a diverse workforce brings other elements of knowledge you can’t learn in the classroom, benefiting patients all the more.