Speaking Out About Racist Attitudes In Medical Education

Racism In Medical Schools

In a search of over 300 Journal articles that were published over the last 10 years, it was shown that only 14 contained that controversial word “racism” in their text; this is an odd fact when you consider how big of a role race and ethnicity play when it comes to “geneticizing” diseases and determining susceptibility. In the medical world, racism is literally the elephant in the room that everyone recognizes but no one wants to address.  

Affirmative action is often called “affirmative discrimination” by critics, so let us take a look at the statistics that are used to support this view. Data compiled by the AAMC from 2013- 2015 shows that Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to get accepted to medical school with GPAs of 3.20 to 3.39 than White and Asian applicants- 56.4% of African-Americans, 30.5% of Hispanics, 5.9% of Whites, and 8.0% of Asians.

Lack of racial diversity

We can not deny facts, but a more telling report published by the AAMC may be their “Undergraduate Institutions Supplying 15 or More Black or African-American Applicants to U.S. Medical Schools, 2015-2016” list. The title alone reveals that there is at least a large populous of undergraduate schools that have fewer than 15 students of African-American descent, and the numbers show that black students represent only 2% or less of the applicant pool.

This statistic is more than just a number for many medical school students, as the absence of ethnic diversity is felt in both the medical classroom and the clinical waiting room. Psychiatrist Damon Tweedy discusses his experiences as a medical student in his memoir Black Man in a White Coat, recalling the time when his professor at Duke assumed he was a maintenance man rather than a student in his class. Another account by Jennifer Adaeze Anyaegbunam, 4th year medical student at University of Virginia, exposes her experience being called a “colored girl” repeatedly by a patient – something which her attending refused to even acknowledge.

These kinds of insidiously racist attitudes also are also trickling down to patient care and the ways physicians diagnose and treat different racial groups. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a survey evaluating racial prejudice and the perception of pain. Of 222 white medical students who were surveyed, about half believed there was truth to false statements regarding biological differences between races – some even believed that blacks feel less pain than whites. If an aspiring doctor holds these convictions, it is easy to see how a misdiagnosis and mistreatment of a black patient could occur in a clinical setting.

How to address the issue of racism

“I just say, ‘It surprises me you would say that’ and then they have to stop.” – Dr. Sue Taylor, Former Medical Director at Tucson Medical Center

Knowing how to combat racism can be difficult, especially in a professional setting where you are unsure what to say. It is very intimidating and uncomfortable for minority medical students, but it is important that both students and physicians speak up in these situations.

In an article for Stat News, Dr. Sue Taylor discussed how she felt a responsibility to demand professional respect and stand up for her minority colleagues when racial injustices occurred. Even though these remarks were not directed toward her, she recognized that this trickle-down mentality is are a part of a bigger issue that concerns every member of a medical team.

On a larger scale, there are several efforts in place to reduce racism in medical schools. For example, AAMC’s Diversity Policy and Programs unit specializes in bringing cultural diversity issues to the forefront and creating initiatives that provide solutions. Campus-wide initiatives such as the Harvard Med’s Racial Justice Coalition and  the Latino Medical Student Association are working to bring cultural awareness to their universities and bridge the gap between health care disparities. Being able to recognize and confront racism by communicating effectively is the only way to help combat the issue in health care and in society as a whole.

Sierra Kennedy
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