Better Late than Never?
Local doctors react to AMA apology to blacks

Dr. Harvey Allen, Sr.
Dr. Harvey Allen, Sr.

By Layla Farmer

The Chronicle
Winston-Salem, NC

July 30, 2008

The American Medical Association has boldly done what few people or organizations are willing to do – admitted they were wrong.

The association, which is home to more than 250,000 practicing physicians across the nation, issued an apology earlier this month for its role in the perpetuation of segregation and apathy towards civil rights issues that concerned blacks.

African Americans were barred from the association until the late 1960’s, according to reports.

“… the AMA failed, across the span of a century, to live up to the high standards that define the noble profession of medicine,” writes immediate Past President Dr. Ronald Davis, in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association or JAMA. “…These dishonorable acts of omission and commission reflected the social mores and racial segregation that existed during those times throughout much of the United States. But that context does not excuse them. The medical profession, which is based on a boundless respect for human life, had an obligation to lead society away from disrespect of so many lives. The AMA failed to do so and has apologized for that failure.”

The National Medical Association, which was founded in the late 19th century by black doctors excluded from the AMA , was quick to accept 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 Dr. Nelson L. Adams, NMA’s President in a July 10 press release.

The apology presented a “historic opportunity” for the two groups to work together to heal the wounds of the past and work on the problems of the present (such as racial disparities), Adams said.

“Let’s not make the same mistakes again and have history repeat itself,” he commented. “Now is the time to move forward and begin serving all patients, regardless of race, creed or color, with the highest medical care possible.”

Being barred from the AMA made it harder for black doctors to access information about new procedures and techniques, says Dr. Harvey Allen Sr., a Winston-Salem second generation physician.

“It made it harder for us to get information between each other,” remarked Allen, who went into private practice as a surgeon in 1965 and is the father of two doctors.

Yet the segregated system wasn’t all bad, said Allen, a member of the NMA. The Kate B. Reynolds Hospital, where he once served as chief of surgery, was the pride of the local black community, he asserts.

“It was a fine hospital,” he said with a smile. “It showed that the black doctor was well trained and had the ability to learn as well as the next person.”

Dr. Jonathan Weston, a local OB/GYN, says he has fought stereotypes and discrimination against African Americans since he was a chief resident in medical school in Rochester, N.Y.

Problems in the healthcare system persist even today, pointed out Weston, who is an active member of the Old North State Medical Society, the oldest association of black physicians in the nation.

While he admits he hasn’t been as active in the AMA or the North Carolina Medical Association in the past, Weston says it’s time he and other black doctors got involved.

“There are so many issues out there involving medicine … that (African Americans), as a group, need to be behind these (traditionally Caucasian) organizations,” he commented. “Anything that benefits them also benefits us.”


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