What do you say when your lecturer says 'stupid Paki'?

From medical school to general practice, there has been prejudice throughout his career, an Asian doctor tells Wendy Berliner
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Shahid Dadabhoy is 32 and a GP. He works in practice with his father in Chingford, north-east London. He originally wanted to go into general hospital medicine, and to study at medical school in London, butin the end Dundee University was the only place that would take him.

He had trouble, too, trying to get his first pre-registration appointment. Again he tried London – repeatedly but unsuccessfully. This time he had to go to Stoke-on-Trent.

He saw the problems that Asian friends were having in trying to break into hospital specialisms and decided to do what his father had done: go into general practice. It was when he met his fellow trainee GPs that he realised he'd probably saved himself much grief. He was 26 by then but, of the 20 in his group, 18 were Asian doctors in their late thirties or early forties whose careers had hit what appeared to be a "race ceiling"; they were specialists from the unfashionable end of district general hospitals who had been unable to get promotion.

"These were people with a lot of experience, but they weren't getting anywhere," he said. "Their careers had stopped, so they too went into general practice."

Was it coincidence – or racism? The King's Fund would say the latter. Dr Dadabhoy, a man with no apparent chips on his shoulders, would probably concur.

Shahid Dadabhoy was born in Irvine, Scotland, where his father had settled with his wife to work in casualty and plastic surgery. His father decided against pursuing professional exams and promotion because he saw Asian doctors repeatedly failing them. Quite why, he never knew.

Instead, he moved to Chingford to train as a GP. They were the first Asian family in the street and Shahid, an only child, went to the local school where he was one of only two Asians. The family avoided confrontations over race, saving their own language and dress for behind closed doors. At 11, he went to the fee-paying, ethnically diverse City of London School, which shielded him from an outside world marred by racism.

With his pleasant manner, familiarity with medical practice and reasonable A-levels, it should not have been so hard to get a place at medical school. But none of the London schools was interested.

"I put on my form that I was a Muslim," he says. "I'll never know whether they were rejecting me, or rejecting me because I was an Asian. Dundee didn't even interview me. They took me on my grades."

There he found it easier to mix with the non-white students, although he got with the whites. But most of their socialising revolved around drinking alcohol, which, as a Muslim, was something he couldn't do. Early networks of contacts for the development of his career were therefore denied to him.

When a lecturer advised students not to ring the drug helpline because it was staffed by "a stupid Paki", he said nothing. "Who do you complain to?" he asks. "People higher up the pecking order mark your exams. You don't want to rock the boat if you know what's good for you."

Later, on his pre-registration jobs, he faced the sharper end of racism. There were the ward rounds on which he got the toughest questions and a tongue-lashing if he didn't get them right. It never seemed to happen to the white doctors. There was the patient's wife who questioned his qualifications and his language skills on the basis of his surname. And there was the nurse who repeatedly called him to see patients during the night, waiting just long enough for him to get back to his bed before calling again.

But all this was nothing compared with the underlying current which, he felt, would stop him making it big-time in a top hospital post.

"Racism is probably endemic in the NHS. There are elements in this country who want to keep it as a museum, whether it's in politics, economics or the health service.

"I think it would have been much more difficult to get on as a hospital doctor. Only one of the Asians from my group at Dundee has made it to consultant level. We are all very proud of him. The others were not able to make it, and racism had a large part to play. It is on the grounds of racism that Asian doctors cannot get to the hub of the information flows. It is all about networking. It is not what you know but who you know. You don't get access to the best jobs and the right references."

He is hard on himself, though. He believes it was cowardice – his word – that stopped him from pursuing a hospital career. But his attitudes have changed since he altered his career path. If his daughter wants to be a doctor he won't dissuade her; but he will offer some advice. "I will tell her to stay in there, and slug it out with racism."

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