When someone says doctor, do you think old white guy? Tell the truth.


A Delta flight attendant is looking for a doctor during a recent in-flight medical emergency. When Dr. Tamika Cross volunteers to help the unresponsive passenger seated in front of her, the flight attendant tells her, “Oh no sweetie put your hand down, we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel, we don’t have time to talk to you.” The crew continues to call for a physician until an older white guy shows up. Dr. Cross apparently does not look like a doctor. Neither do the nine women physicians who share similar stories here. So what do doctors look like on airplanes? 

Maybe this should be Delta’s announcement: ”We have a medical emergency. Is there a tall, gray-haired, white man on the plane?”

A female surgeon in a white coat introduces herself to her patient as Dr. Smith and completes her preoperative exam. She explains all the risks of the surgery, then asks for questions. The patient says, “Can you get me some ice? When will the doctor be here? I want to talk to him.” Dr. Smith apparently does not look like a doctor even when dressed like a doctor inside a hospital. So what do doctors look like inside of hospitals? 


* When a male medical student and a female doctor enter a patient room, the male is frequently assumed to be the doctor and the female is the nurse or assistant.

* Female physicians are frequently mistaken for nurses, lab techs, food service, janitors, hospital transport, and candy stripers. Even after introducing themselves in proper attire with name badges and stethoscopes patients actually ask these women to toast their bread or change their diapers. 

* The darker the doctor’s skin, the more likely she is assumed to be housekeeping or a cafeteria worker. The lighter the skin, the more frequently she is assumed to be the nurse.

Don’t get upset with me. I’m just the messenger sharing the truth about life in a patriarchal medical model. And yes, discrimination is worse for those with darker skin.

So what do doctors look like?

I asked Dr. Google. I went incognito on Chrome, typed “doctor,” and pressed images. I analyzed the first 100 photos. Here are the results:

Male doctors 74% (66% of practicing physicians are male)

Female doctors 26% (33% of practicing physicians are female)

White male doctors 59%

White female doctors 18%

Black male doctors 7%

Black female doctors* 3% (2% of practicing physicians are black women)

Little white boys dressed as doctors  2%   

*2 of the 3 black female doctors were Dr. Cross

Google images exposes society’s most harmful stereotypes. In this case it skews the lack of diversity in medicine and reinforces the notion that doctor = white male. Public opinion is heavily influenced by media images. Female physicians are underrepresented on Google images as are dark-skinned women physicians. Two of the 3 black women physicians in the first 100 images were Dr. Tamika Cross. If Dr. Cross were not in the news, there would just be one black woman represented.

Meanwhile 2% of images were of little light-skinned boys dressed up as doctors. No little girls dressed up as doctors. No little dark-skinned girl doctors popped up either. In fact, if Dr. Tamika Cross were not in the news, the number of white boys dressed up as doctors would exceed the number of grown black women physicians.

Good thing Dr. Tamika Cross is reminding us of all the underrepresented doctors out there. Reality check: Half of all medical school graduates are now women. More than half of all obstetricians are female. A whopping 85% of all Ob/gyn residents are women and 75% of all pediatricians-in-training are women.

Next time you’re in the hospital, don’t ask the dark-skinned woman in the white coat for a cup of coffee. She’s busy taking care of your newborn. Got a medical emergency on a plane? Let’s hope the doctor below can get past the flight attendant to assist you.


Yep! The face of medicine is changing.


Pamela Wible, M.D., is a family physician dedicated to eradicating the widespread human rights violations in medicine. She is author of Physician Suicide Letters—Answered.

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15 comments on “When someone says doctor, do you think old white guy? Tell the truth.
  1. Moji says:

    It would be interesting to address the disparity in compensation between male and female physicians, too. I know for OBGYN the difference is 20% according to the latest poll.

  2. Mr. James Kenyon says:

    I believe a DR. is a DR. no matter who they are male/female. I also believe a woman is actually the best candidate to be a DR. as women have a knack for caring. They have a better understanding about life in general because they actually bring babies into the world. They have an inner nurturing way that most men will never understand and really couldn’t understand. I`ve never asked this before, but are there DR`s assigned to flights? I mean you would think that on a flight the airline would/should have a DR. on each flight to take care of emergency`s. Right now were living in the fast lane where we don`t want to take the time to secure our happiness, I`ve learned to like to be happy. Often when life gives me too much sadness I step back and read from DR. Wible`s book ( Pet Goats and Pap Smears ) or DR. from Patch Adams books, good stuff!

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Ive heard that 85% of flights just happen to have a doctor onboard. I guess there are a lot of us out there. Most docs do not carry their diplomas or credentials with them by the way.

      • Ted Fogarty, MD says:

        I often look like a college student on flights, wearing sweatshirts-laptops in backpacks. When I tell the person seated next to me that I am a phyisician they look incredulous. Some of this is not just gender and race but ‘establishemnt’ appearance impacting perception of credibility. When I where my giant headphones and listen to Corporate Avenger, it furthers the problems of trust from strangers that I am really who I say I am. This goes for so much of people’s first glance snap judgements of everyone ‘on the street’ ….given these outer appearance issues, I would propose that any woman of color in a nicely dressed outfit is still gonna beat me in the credibility of presentation as physician index and the flight attendant would still wait for a third person to step up as a well dressed man of any variation in melanin before shlub me or well dressed woman. These credibility indexes have to be improving but are obviously slow icons to melt away from the greater societal collective consciousness.

        • Pamela Wible MD says:

          Oooh. This is reminding me of the controversy with my author photo on my book cover. I was not looking like a doctor (sleeveless, bindi, glitter, big smile) and some patients freaked out about that (though doctors liked the photo). Doctors are real people and so me being real was liberating for docs but created fear in patients. Here is what I wrote at the end of the book to address the controversy:

          I’ve been absolutely fascinated by the controversy that my back cover has elicited among readers. I’ve been warned that I’m sabotaging myself with this author photo. For some, it’s bizarre to see a doctor smiling in a bathtub on a suicide book. It’s too weird and creepy because people o en slit their wrists while taking a warm bath. It’s just all wrong. Which is why it is right.

          Greg Miday died in secrecy and shame by slitting his wrists and ankles in a bathtub. I’m bringing honesty and openness to his death and to a taboo topic that has been buried in darkness for far too long. From a hot tub. In the light of day. Smiling. Despite the fact that I treat sick patients all day and that I hear from suicidal doctors all the time, I am committed to living life joyfully with hope and optimism. My photo re ects that.

          I’ve been advised that this cover could not possibly be comforting to anyone who has lost somebody to suicide. en survivors of suicide attempts tell me they love the cover because it is reassuring and hopeful. I’ve been told the book cover succeeds in “comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable.”

          I am a woman who elicits controversy, not because I enjoy controversy (although I do), but because I strive to stand in the truth. How I practice medicine has been controversial—from thriving in a solo practice where nobody is turned away for lack of money to being the voice of doctors who are disheartened, discouraged, depressed, and deceased.

          Book cover is here for reference.

  3. Karen Glover says:

    I had an experience on Southwest Airlines where the flight attendant asked if there was doctor or nurse on board and I raised my hand. She came immediately and got me and I identified myself. She brought me to the passenger and I proceeded to do an evaluation. Was not very serious and the passenger was awake, alert, and oriented. The pilot decided to make a nearby emergency landing to get the passenger further medical attention. They were very appreciative that I was there and even gave me a complementary ticket for a future flight. This was about 10 or 11 years ago.
    I was aghast that this happened to Dr. Cross. Very surprised in light of my experience.

  4. MKWARE says:

    Such a sad situation. No I do not think old white guy. I have worked proudly beside many doctors. We all uplift one another. Sadly many in the medical field are often pigeon holed including nursing. Once a dominant female field, more male nurses are surfacing. Kudos to all the heros and unsung heros.

  5. Tammy Eisentrout says:

    Caucasian female FP physician. I have had a run in with EMS that was not so positive but otherwise I have only been called on a plane a couple of times but got there and issue was resolved as I got there. I am sickened by the treatment of fellow female physicians no matter what race. I still feel that just doing what we do with compassion is our best advertisement if you will. So many things have come such a long way since I was a med student. Keep fighting the fight ladies. Though this is a step back it does bring to light what we deal with on a regular basis in many realms. I just wanted to post a positive experience that I have had. This winter I was at Dicks sporting goods looking for ski helmets. Overhead I heard, “Could anyone with any medical experience come to the front desk”. I headed to front desk, told them I was a doctor, no credentials requested, and they ushered me to a gentlemen who was unconscious. The manager was right there asking how he could help me. Held traction on his neck since he had fallen and hit his head. Questioned and reassured family until squad arrived. Helped squad back board him. Manager and staff were extremely grateful. When I went to check out they said the manager insists on giving you a 50% discount. I said no that is not necessary, she said “well the manger insists”. I just wanted to share something positive to show that we are making progress.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      You are awesome Tammy! I bet for every horror story there may be 10 positive experience that never get shared. Let’s keep healing the wounded—physically, emotionally, spiritually. No place for sexism or racism in 2016.

  6. Dr Moo says:

    Been mistaken for a nurse, a cleaner, or someone from the kitchen? It cuts both ways friends,I am a female Dr & was once sitting next to a male Dr in the hospital, and a patient’s relative came up and immediately punched the male Dr in the face. He thought that I did not look like a Dr, and I was not figuring in his equation of what possibly could be the actual situation.
    Even though the patient was my patient and not the male Dr’s patient, that meant nothing to the patient’s relative.
    I am used to not being recognized as a Dr by people & am often asked by other shoppers in supermarkets, where items are located in the aisles.
    I like to think that it is because I look like someone who knows that kind of thing.

  7. B Garvey says:

    Concerning the article about Plane crews bypass…color, Who cares! If they don’t want your help it’s their business, they have their reasons and it’s not your place to judge them…no one has made you the “decider”, just because you happen to think you are! As our wonderful former mayor of Washington D.C. used to say, “Just get over it”!!!

  8. Francis says:

    4th row 6th image.

    Is that Barack Obama in a white coat and stethoscope? Haha

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