A longtime black doctor with Sutter Health says racism in the workplace has made him the target of derogatory remarks, demotions and pay cuts, according to a lawsuit filed against the large California hospital system.

Dr. Omondi Nyong’o is an internationally renowned pediatric ophthalmologist who became the first and only black physician to chair a department in the Palo Alto Medical Foundation region of Sutter Health, according to the lawsuit. But he says a racist environment that permeates Sutter has sabotaged his career and brought shame and embarrassment to him.

“I’ve been subject to the type of racism that hits you in the back of the head when you don’t see it coming,” Nyong’o said. “I have been blindsided by leaders who suddenly and harshly demoted me from my leadership positions, even though I excelled in them, in order to evade responsibility for their own shortcomings.”

The lawsuit alleges that Sutter’s work culture “disrespects, undermines and disciplines African-American staff and physicians” such as Dr. Nyong’o due to racial bias.

“A lot of us have been through the things I went through in Sutter or have been kicked out over the years,” Nyong’o said, echoing allegations made in the lawsuit.

Dr. Omondi Nyong’o is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against Sutter Health, Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group

Nyong’o rose to ranks rarely given to black doctors within Sutter’s network, according to the lawsuit, but his upward trajectory was abruptly cut short “due to racial malaise” on the part of predominantly white leaders within of the medical system.

In 2015, according to the lawsuit, Nyong’o was granted the position of director of the department of ophthalmology and optometry, the first black doctor to reach that level of leadership at the Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group. Two years later, Nyong’o says he was promoted again, taking over as medical director of surgical specialties at the Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group.

But the promotion was short-lived.

According to the lawsuit, Nyong’o was ordered to implement a hospital restructuring plan devised by two of his bosses, which would have transferred some doctors to different locations. But when those doctors voiced their opposition, the plan was scrapped and Nyong’o says he was forced to suffer the fall. He was stripped of his title of medical director, according to the lawsuit, and his salary was cut by about 40%

“A black doctor like me was superfluous,” Nyong’o said. “You know, we were used as tokens.”

In a statement, a Sutter Health spokesperson told NBC Bay Area: “We are committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce and a healthcare environment where all are treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and have the opportunity to reach their full potential. As a health system serving diverse people and communities, we do not tolerate any form of discrimination.”

In court filings in response to Nyong’o’s lawsuit, Sutter’s attorneys denied any wrongdoing and claimed any negative employment action taken against the doctor was for “legitimate business reasons.” , non-discriminatory and without retaliation”.

Nyong’o remained in Sutter, where he continues to work, but says his abuse continued.

“When I asked these leaders to please stop this pattern of racial scapegoating, instead of protecting me, they doubled down and called me an angry black doctor,” Nyong’o said. .

“Sutter freely agrees that I excel in patient care and that I am a very successful physician and clinician. They relied on the disguise or pretense of truly disgusting racially coded epithets to justify retaliation against me for complaining of mistreatment.

In one case described in the lawsuit, Nyong’o says his supervisor asked him not to use the elevators in his clinic because white doctors would be “uncomfortable” to see him there, not letting him only the rear stairs to access the property. Nyong’o says he denied the request.

In 2020, according to the lawsuit, Sutter placed Nyong’o on a performance enhancement plan, not because of patient care issues, but because of his perceived attitude.

“If it could happen to Dr Nyong’o, it really could happen to any doctor, any black doctor [at Sutter]said Kelly Dermody, Nyong’o’s lawyer.

Nyong’o’s trial also includes testimony from seven other unnamed black Sutter doctors.

“We wanted to provide this more complete picture, so that Dr. Nyong’o’s story could be understood as not just one person complaining,” Dermody said. “But really kind of a constellation of issues happening in an ecosystem that really devalues ​​black doctors and black leadership.”

Kelly Dermody, attorney at Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, represents Dr. Nyong’o in his lawsuit against Sutter Health

According to the lawsuit, several of these other black doctors were called “aggressive” or “intimidating” when raising concerns about racial discrimination or patient care.

A black surgeon described being followed to his office by a white colleague who wondered if he was actually working there, according to the lawsuit. Another black doctor said he received similar treatment when a white colleague tried to block them from parking in a space reserved for doctors.

Sutter Health is one of California’s largest medical systems, with more than 20 hospitals, 53,000 employees and three million patients. But according to the lawsuit, there are no black leaders in Sutter’s senior ranks. Of 354 doctors in leadership positions at Sutter, only three are black. A Sutter Health spokesperson neither confirmed nor denied the accuracy of these numbers.

NBC Bay Area requested similar racial demographics from other major health systems such as Kaiser, Stanford and UCSF, but none provided us with their data.

“Personally, I can’t see problems of this magnitude and do nothing about it,” said Dr. Vanessa Grubbs, an Oakland-based nephrologist who recently founded the nonprofit Black Doc Village.

The fledgling organization aims to study racism in the medical field and help black doctors and medical students overcome discrimination in the workplace.

“There’s so much we’re losing because we’re systematically undervaluing a whole group of people based on these delusions that black people are somehow inferior,” Grubbs said.

Grubbs, who has practiced medicine for more than 20 years, says discrimination can impact black doctors early, sometimes during their residency requirements. She says it has the potential to derail careers.

“Black people in this country are dying disproportionately in all outcomes,” Grubbs said. “And we know black people get better health outcomes when they have black doctors. We know they prefer black doctors.”

A 2023 study published in JAMA Surgery found that black surgical residents faced disproportionate risks of attrition compared to their colleagues of other races, meaning they were more likely to leave or be expelled from these programs.

“To make real change in anything, we have to understand and define the problem,” said Dr. Lee Haruno, chief resident of orthopedic surgery at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and one of the authors of the study.

Haruno said the medical field should focus on improving the recruitment, retention and promotion of women and underrepresented minorities.

“We will not be able to meet the holistic needs of our patients if we fail to meet many needs with representation and diversity,” Haruno said.

According to a 2022 report by the Association of Medical Colleges, only 6% of doctors are black, but the latest data from the US Census Bureau shows that blacks make up 14% of the population.

Unless the two sides reach a settlement in Nyong’o’s trial, the case is expected to go to trial this summer.

“You can never truly despair if you didn’t have hope in the first place,” Nyong’o said. “And this journey of mine has been one of ultimate hope, even through despair.”

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