Black Doctors: Ama Apology For Racism First Step

It wasn't until the 1960s that the AMA took a
strong stance against policies dating to the 1800s
that barred Blacks from some state and local medical
societies, a prequisite for obtaining hospital privileges.

By Chris Levister

Black Voice News
Riverside, CA

July 23, 2008

California Wellness 2007 Champion of Health Professions Diversity Award and former president of the Vines Medical Society, Ernest Levister, M.D. has poignant memories of being the only Black doctor in exclusive medical training programs during the 1960s and 70s. Because of the color of his skin and the bar from organized medicine, he was prevented from seeing patients in most hospitals and health clinics.

So when the American Medical Association, formally apologized this month for more than a century of discriminatory practices - it was long over due but a first step. "For years the AMA ignored the touchstone of Hippocratic Oath "Do No Harm" when it came to African-American doctors and patients," explains Dr. Levister, a Black Voice News health columnist for more than 20 years. "By acquiescing in injustice, the AMA perpetuated attitudes and practices that contributed to a serious health and education gap between Blacks and whites that still exists."

A panel convened by the AMA in 2005 concluded that "For more than 100 years, many state and local medical societies openly discriminated against Black physicians, barring them from membership, professional support and advancement."

"In offering an apology, the AMA recognizes that contrition cannot remove the stain left by a legacy of discrimination," Ronald Davis, the associations immediate past president wrote in a JAMA commentary that was published with the report.

The apology is part of the AMA's efforts to reconcile and call attention to the paucity of Black physicians and health disparities, including disproportionate rates of many diseases among Blacks and other minorities.

While Blacks represent roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population, less than 3 percent of the nation's 1 million doctors and medical students are Black.

The National Medical Association, which was founded in the 19th century by Black physicians who were barred from the AMA, welcomed the apology. "We commend the AMA for taking this courageous step and coming to grips with a litany of discriminatory practices that have had a devastating effect on the health of African Americans," said Nelson L. Adams, MD, NMA president. "In fact, the NMA owes its very existence, in part to these inequities which forced African-American physicians to found their own membership organization."

Michelle Clark, MD, president of the California Golden State Medical Society, a component of the NMA is not surprised by the AMA finding, "just amazed that it required three years of research to discover." Clark said while the apology calls attention to an awful history of discriminatory practices it is a necessary first step toward the resolution of a greater problem.

The apology is welcomed as the beginning to an end. It opens a portal for stakeholders to work in partnership on these goals. This is essential as proponents of former attitudes remain in positions of decision making and perpetrate disparities in education, research and service delivery. We look forward to AMA honoring their new commitment to facilitate increasing the numbers of "minority" physicians with the Minority Affairs Consortium. We will continue to work through the National Medical Association (NMA) in partnership with AMA on the Commission to End Health Care Disparities in activities such as the Doctors Back to School program and the Foundations' Minority Scholars Awards," said Clark in a statement.

"After a hundred and fifty years, the AMA has finally admitted to previous discriminatory practices a courageous first step toward healing in the medical community. This will open the door to honest, candid dialogue, creating a healthier nation for the future," said A.J. Rogers, M.D., president of the Inland Empire NMA component Vines Medical Society.

"The National Medical Association was founded because African-American physicians were not permitted to join the racially segregated American Medical Association. Overt medical community racism left behind a legacy of poor health in minority communities, inadequate numbers of healthcare facilities and providers to treat the poor and underprivileged, resulting in centuries of health care disparities, excessive disease and premature death," Rogers said.

Five years ago the AMA joined with the NMA and the National Hispanic Medical Association to create the Commission to End Health Care Disparities. The Minority Affairs Consortium (MAC) was created to address the specific needs of minority physicians and to stimulate and support efforts to train more minority physicians. The AMA's philanthropic arm provides $10,000 scholarships to medical students winners of the Minority Scholars Award. This year 12 students received the awards.


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