AMA calls racism a ‘public health threat’

The American Medical Association Monday voted to recognize systemic racism and interpersonal bias by healthcare workers as a “serious” threat to public health that hinders efforts to achieve health equity and reduce disparities among minority populations.

The resolution, approved during a special meeting of the AMA House of Delegates, calls for the organization to acknowledge the role both historic and current “racist medical practices” have played in harming marginalized communities and for the group to develop a set of best practices to help stakeholders to address the effects of racism on patients and providers.

The country’s leading physicians group will also encourage medical education programs to do more to incorporate a greater understanding of the health effects of systemic racism within their curricula.

Addressing racial bias within medical education has received greater scrutiny in recent years as a growing number of medical schools have acknowledged the lack of attention such issues have gotten in the past.

The resolution was among several proposals related to addressing racial discrimination, diversity, equity and inclusion within care delivery and medical education deliberated during the meeting. The House of Delegates also adopted a resolution calling on the AMA to recognize race as social construct and not to use the word as a substitute for biological markers like genetic ancestry. The organization contended that using race as a biological explanation for differences in health outcomes took attention away from investigating the role racist actions such as financial and environmental disinvestment in minority communities played in creating health disparities.

“When we use race as a substitute for genetic ancestry, it limits us from investigating and addressing racism and other racial traumas,” the resolution stated.

In furthering efforts to end the use of race in biological terms, delegates supported a resolution calling for the elimination of the term, “racial essentialism,” defined as the idea that a “genetic or biological essence that defines all members of a racial category.”

Using race as a biological trait has long been the basis for discrimination, stereotypes and stigma against people of color. During slavery, a prevailing argument was that Black people were biologically inferior to White people, and therefore their bondage was justified.

Perceived biological differences based on race continue to drive clinical decisions that negatively impact minority patients. Black patients, for instance, are less likely to get treated for pain compared to White patients due in part to the misconception Black patients have a higher pain tolerance.

The resolutions passed on Monday are a continuation of the AMA’s ongoing effort to address the health effects of racism.

At its June meeting, the AMA released a statement pledging its commitment to take action to confront systemic racism and police brutality.

Interest in reducing racial discrimination has become a top priority within the healthcare industry since the beginning of the year as protests for racial justice following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor coupled with the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on communities of color has highlighted the real-world impact of racial inequity.

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