Apology from AMA for racism

Dr. Thad Bell
Dr. Thaddeus J. Bell

By Dr. Thaddeus J. Bell

The Post and Courier News
Charleston, SC

August 5, 2008

I am very disappointed that The Post and Courier did not carry the historic American Medical Association apology to African-American physicians for 100 years of discrimination that was issued on July 11.

The AMA is the organization that is supposed to represent the welfare of all physicians and their patients.

In the July 16 issue of the Journal of the AMA the association acknowledged its history of racial inequality.

Dr. Ronald M. Davis, the immediate past president, added that the AMA failed for more than a century "to live up to the high standards that define the noble profession of medicine." The apology was prompted by the results of a study that revealed the history of segregation in the AMA.

Dr. Davis confirmed the obligation of the AMA to promote respect for life and acknowledged the organization's failures. The AMA never denied membership officially to African-American physicians but allowed its state affiliates to do so.

When I heard this news, I was overwhelmed with sadness, anger and a heightened sense of motivation to continue pushing forward to correct what I have always known to be a prevarication.

I thought about the comments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who, in 1965, spoke about the short life span of African Americans and his prediction that health disparities would be the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

I thought about when I was barred from medical schools in 1966 because they did not accept applicants of color. I thought about the many African-American physicians in this state and in this community who practiced their entire careers in less than appropriate circumstances because of discrimination from the medical profession.

Many of these pioneers had to treat their patients in the basement of white hospitals. All African-American physicians today stand on the shoulders of those stalwart doctors.

I thought about the Hippocratic Oath we took not to discriminate when treating people.

I thought of the hundreds of thousands of people of color who died because their physician could not treat them using equipment and training available only to white doctors. I thought about how physicians were supposed to treat each other with dignity and respect.

I thought about the many African-American individuals in the community who encouraged my classmates and me "to hang in there" when the going was tough for black medical students.

I thought of the few white physicians who suffered repercussions when they tried to speak out publicly against these injustices. I thought about the many African-American patients who felt black doctors were not qualified because they could not work at white hospitals or join the state AMA.

The discrimination and prejudice that pervaded the AMA has a direct correlation on the health disparities that exists today. I mourn the millions of people who died because health care providers did less than their best when treating people after swearing in the presence of Almighty God to do their best.

The AMA apology is a beginning. But where do we go from here? How do you make up for 100 years of discrimination?

Associate Dean
Minority Affairs
College of Medicine
Charleston, SC


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