Doctors in Dallas applaud national association's
discrimination apology

By Scott Farwell

The Dallas Morning News
Dallas, TX

July 10, 2008

The nation's largest medical association apologized Thursday for discriminating against black doctors for more than a century.

In Dallas, several doctors welcomed the apology and expressed hope that the American Medical Association's contrition would inspire the local medical establishment to examine its openness to doctors of color.

"I think that it's about time in many aspects of our society, including the AMA, that people start to admit there have been problems," said Dr. Jill Waggoner, a family practice physician in Oak Cliff.

Ronald M. Davis, immediate past president of the AMA, apologized in the July 16 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association .

"Although current members of a group might bear little or no responsibility for past actions, a group apology makes clear the group's current moral orientation," he wrote. "Acknowledging past wrongs lays a marker for understanding and tracking current and future actions."

Dr. Waggoner said modern-day discrimination against black doctors is subtle, pervasive and poisonous: Hospital privileges are more difficult to gain. Physicians groups are neither warm nor welcoming. Reimbursement rates from insurance companies are suspiciously skewed.

"Look at the boards of the major hospitals and physicians groups in Dallas," she said. "I think what you'll see is a local health care system that is controlled predominately by Anglo males."

The AMA's apology comes after the group convened a panel of experts in 1995 to study the nation's racial divide in medicine. Details of the study will be made public next week.

The mea culpa comes more than 40 years after AMA delegates denounced policies at state and local medical societies dating to the 1800s that barred blacks. For decades, AMA delegates resisted efforts to get them to speak out forcefully against discrimination or to condemn the smaller medical groups that historically have had a big role in shaping AMA policy.

While the national organization didn't have a policy against black doctors, physicians were required to be members of the local groups to participate in the AMA.

Dr. William Walton, a family practice physician and president of the Dallas County Medical Society, said minorities are encouraged to practice at local hospitals and join physicians groups.

"There are no structural problems when it comes to minority participation," he said. "We recognize the need."

Even though he sees no evidence of it, Dr. Walton said, he believes non-white doctors who tell him they feel systemically excluded from the city medical establishment.

"This country still has an underpinning of prejudice against African-Americans, and physicians are not immune to that," he said. "I'm a Caucasian, so it's difficult for me to see."

Dr. Waymon Drummond, an internal medicine physician in Old East Dallas, said he sees it every day when he's denied research grants or denied privileges to practice in local hospitals because he lacks certain types of experience and training.

It's a Catch-22, he said. He's denied opportunities because he lacks experience, but without the grants and hospital privileges, he's unable to gain the needed credentials.

"There are probably minority physicians at every major hospital in the metroplex," he said. "But only certain physicians are allowed. The local general physician would not be able to qualify."

Dr. Drummond said he was not invited to join the Dallas County Medical Society when he began practicing 25 years ago, so like many non-white physicians, he joined the C.V. Roman Medical Society, named for the first black physician to practice in Dallas.

Nationally, black doctors formed the National Medical Association for the same reason because they were denied membership in the AMA.

The apology might seem belated, but it isn't the AMA's first for its discriminatory history. Dr. John Nelson, then AMA's president, offered a similar apology at a 2005 meeting on improving health care and eliminating disparities.

That came a year after the AMA joined the National Medical Association and other minority doctors groups in forming the Commission to End Health Care Disparities.

Thursday's apology was meant to accelerate healing between the physicians groups.

"The AMA is committed to improving its relationship with minority physicians and to increasing the ranks of minority physicians so that the workforce accurately represents the diversity of America's patients," Dr. Davis wrote. "Our goal is to identify and study racial and ethnic health care disparities in order to eradicate them."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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