‘Are you actually an M.D.?’: A black MGH doctor was questioned as she intervened on a Delta flight

"I should not be called into question about something I have worked for my entire life.”

A Delta Air Lines passenger jet plane approaches Logan Airport in Boston.
A Delta spokesman said that flight attendants were not required to verify credentials from someone who says she or he is a physician, physician assistant, nurse, paramedic or emergency technician. –Charles Krupa / AP, File

Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford was on a Delta flight from Indianapolis to Boston on Tuesday when she noticed the woman next to her showing signs of distress. So Stanford did what she was trained to do in more than a decade of experience as a doctor — she began to assist her.

But Stanford, who is black, said she had just started to help the passenger when a flight attendant approached and asked if she was a doctor. Stanford said yes and, without being asked, she took out her medical license, which says she is a physician registered in Massachusetts and has the letters “M.D.” after her name.

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“I know I don’t look the part,” Stanford, 39, said in an interview Thursday. “So I just carry it with my driver’s license at all times.”

The flight attendant glanced at it and walked away, she said. As Stanford continued to try to calm the passenger, another flight attendant approached and asked to see the license. She, too, looked at it and walked away. Then the two flight attendants returned together and began another series of questions.

“Are you a head doctor?” one of them asked. When Stanford said she did not understand the question, the flight attendant asked, “Are you actually an M.D.?”

Then the second flight attendant spoke: “Is this your license?” When the doctor asked what she meant, the flight attendant repeated the question. “Why would I carry someone else’s medical license?” Stanford said she replied.

Stanford, who practices obesity medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and is a Harvard Medical School instructor, spoke with local news media outlets and wrote about the encounter on social media accounts this week, reviving questions about implicit bias against black professionals.

The unguarded skepticism about medical professionals and race is a question that Stanford, who graduated from the Medical College of Georgia in 2007, said she has often discussed with colleagues of color, who have swapped stories of being mistaken for support staff, or asked to remove trays or wipe up messes in the emergency room.

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“This is something that the medical community has embraced as a reality,” she said. “When you Google a doctor, most of the pictures that come up are of a white man.”

“There are other people who look like me,” she added. “And I should not be called into question about something I have worked for my entire life.”

Stanford said she was not challenged for the rest of the two-hour flight. As they were descending, she said, one attendant told her they would not need to check her license anymore because “it seems like you were able to handle everything.”

She interpreted the encounter as biased because of the persistent questioning about whether she was a physician even after she had provided proof. “It never stopped,” she said. “I just couldn’t figure out why we were having this discussion.”

Delta apologized to Stanford on Wednesday and said it was investigating, according to the email it sent her.

On Thursday, Anthony Black, a Delta spokesman, noted that the airline had changed its policy about medical credentials in 2016 to say flight attendants are not required to verify credentials from someone who says she or he is a physician, physician assistant, nurse, paramedic or emergency technician.

Black said the flight attendants working on Stanford’s flight, Flight 5935, on Tuesday were employed by Republic Airline, a Delta Connection partner.

“Moving forward, we are following up with our connection carrier partner to ensure their employees understand and consistently apply the policy,” he said in an email.

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Jon Austin, a spokesman for Republic, said in an email Thursday that the airline was working with Delta to make sure its employees apply such policies. “We’re grateful to Dr. Stanford for her medical assistance onboard our Flight 5935 and are sorry for any misunderstanding that may have occurred during her exchange with our in-flight crew.”

Delta’s policy change was prompted by an incident in October 2016, when a black physician from Houston, Dr. Tamika Cross, offered to treat a sick patient during a Delta flight from Detroit to Minneapolis.

Cross, who did not have her medical license with her, told The New York Times in 2016 that when she volunteered to help, a flight attendant demanded “credentials” and confirmation that she was an “actual” physician, nurse or medical personnel.

Cross said she had previously encountered assumptions that being a black woman, she was not a doctor. “I think minorities in general, especially in my field of practice — I feel that they are always questioned and always assumed to be the nurse or the nurse’s aide or here as part of the janitorial team or ancillary staff,” she said.

On Thursday, Cross said not much had changed since that year, even after her residency training ended.

Now at Memorial Hermann Pearland Hospital in Pearland, Texas, with regular patients, she is still occasionally mistaken for support staff.

“I think that it is just going to be a lifelong battle,” Cross said.

Stanford said she has carried the wallet-size version of her medical license since she read about what happened to Cross in 2016. As Cross’ was, Stanford’s experience was widely shared online by colleagues to highlight offensive assumptions about diversity in the medical field.

The 2016 hashtag #WhatADoctorLooksLike, which was inspired by Cross’ case, was resurrected this week to raise awareness about the doubts dealt with by many black medical professionals.

Stanford, in a post on her Twitter account directed at Delta, said she was “very disappointed that your policies on diversity” had not led to changes.\

Among those commenting online after Stanford’s ordeal was published was Cross, who wrote to Delta on Facebook: “In 2016, you did not believe I looked like a doctor either. Hundreds of thousands of us across this country and even in other countries banded together to show you #whatadoctorlookslike but here we stand JUST 2 years later and your employees have not learned.”

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