Apology a good start, but AMA needs to do more for black doctors

By South Florida Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board

ISSSUE: Doctors' organization apologizes for discrimination against blacks.

Sun Sentinal News
Deerfield Beach, FL

July 22, 2008

The American Medical Association should be commended for finally owning up to policies that excluded blacks from the organization for more than a century. But a mea culpa is worthless without action to back it up, and there is plenty the esteemed medical association can do to make amends.

It's disconcerting, for example, that blacks make up less than 3 percent of the nation's 1 million medical students and physicians and only 2 percent of AMA's membership. The numbers are particularly disturbing when you consider that blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and are disproportionately represented in statistics for serious illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

The apology coincides with an AMA-commissioned independent study, which was published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, chronicling the history of the racial divide in organized medicine and health care disparities that exist to this day.

While the national AMA had no formal policy excluding black physicians from its ranks historically, it failed to speak out forcefully against local and state AMA branches that fueled national membership and excluded blacks for decades, prompting the organization to also apologize last week for its "dishonorable" silence during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

That history can't be erased, just as it's impossible to expunge the nation's tainted record of racial inequality. But the AMA can begin the healing with concrete measures to help bridge the divide. There obviously needs to be more recruitment and retention of blacks at medical schools and hospitals throughout the country, and the medical association can lead such a campaign with its influence and resources.

The organization has already started the process by creating the Minority Affairs Consortium to lead out in an effort to train more minority physicians through scholarships and other avenues. The organization is also collaborating with the National Medical Association, a black physicians organization, and the National Hispanic Medical organization to address racial and ethnic disparities in health care. These are good gestures that should help make the apology more than just words.

BOTTOM LINE: It's time to go beyond apologies and break the barriers down.


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