Commentary: An “ethnic minority” medical student

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 18 August 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1240
  1. Hugh Ip, fifth year medical student
  1. 1Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ
  1. [email protected]

    I began my medical studies in London in 2003, naive, but brimming with enthusiasm. Five years on1 I have more insight into the challenges medical students face, as well as the particular implications of belonging to an ethnic minority. In their study, Woolf et al describe stereotypical views of South Asian medical students. I think that students and teachers hold similar views of Chinese medical students: conscientious, hardworking, and bright in terms of book learning, but weaker at communicating with patients and teachers.

    The authors suggest that academic performance is adversely affected by negative stereotypes (stereotype threat). I feel that my mindset—that of an international student—shielded me from some of these adverse effects. I left behind family and friends in Hong Kong with my eyes wide open. When I landed at Heathrow airport a week before the start of term I knew that I would have to adapt to a new culture. I expected to be perceived differently from the “white British” student and I was prepared to adapt my learning style with a positive attitude.

    Maybe my awareness of ethnic stereotypes was heightened by my secondary education in an international school. I was taught by British teachers who deftly facilitated cross cultural learning and friendship between students of almost 30 nationalities. Woolf et al “recommend that clinical teachers should make efforts to get to know their students as individuals.” Pressured clinicians, with less time and training, will find it more difficult than my school teachers did.

    Hong Kong is a cosmopolitan city, London even more so. During my clinical studies I have probably encountered as many doctors and patients from ethnic minorities as white doctors and patients. I wonder how medical students from ethnic minorities fare in less diverse parts of the United Kingdom. How prevalent are the adverse effects of negative stereotyping and do they vary?

    Perhaps the diversity of the medical student population matters too. In facing the pressures of medical studies I have found the support of fellow students invaluable.2 It is not surprising that ethnically Chinese friends (from various countries) find it easier to empathise with my own struggles—for example, academic and familial—given our shared cultural background. Some white students, however, not only befriend students from ethnic minorities superficially but also go beyond stereotypes to understand the particular challenges they face, for which I am grateful.

    Thirty per cent of the UK medical student population come from ethnic minorities. This percentage looks set to rise, in light of the government’s widening participation initiative.3 The study by Woolf et al, of the adverse effects of negative stereotyping on learning, is highly relevant to students from ethnic minorities as well as the patients they will one day serve. The authors offer suggestions for clinical teachers to counter stereotype threat, but medical students have responsibilities too. Although we cannot change the colour of our skin, we can persevere4 by grasping any learning opportunities that present and making ourselves teachable as best we can.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1240


    • doi: 10.1136/bmj.a1220
    • HI is a former student editor of the Student BMJ.

    • Competing interests: None declared.

    • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not peer reviewed.

    This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


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