American Medical Association issues anti-racism plan for itself, the AMA, and the field of medicine

The American Medical Association, the nation’s largest association of and lobby group for doctors, says it’s taking on racial disparities in health care with a plan to dismantle structural racism in its own ranks and across the U.S. medical establishment.

Leaders of the AMA, whose headquarters is on North Wabash Avenue in River North, say they’re aiming to “pivot from ambivalence to urgent action” on health inequities.

Though the new, 83-page report has been in the works for more than a year, the group says the coronavirus pandemic, high-profile police brutality cases and recent race-based crimes have given the effort a sense of urgency.

Dr. Gerald Harmon, incoming AMA president.

Dr. Gerald Harmon, incoming AMA president.

’’We’re working very hard at AMA to increase not just diversity in the health care work force but in understanding of health inequities,” said Dr. Gerald Harmon, a family medicine specialist in South Carolina who begins his term as AMA president next month.

The AMA report — in the works for more than a year — says: “Our bold and necessary path forward seeks to pivot from ambivalence to urgent action; from euphemisms to explicit conversations about power, racism, gender and class oppression, forms of discrimination and exclusion; from passive to specific action supported by resource redistribution and infrastructure change; from rationalization and good intentions to a comprehensive analysis of structures, systems, policies and practices leading to real improvement and impact; and from lack of accountability to an active embrace of equity as a core mission and strategy.”

U.S. physicians are overwhelmingly white. AMA membership reflects that. Most of the group’s 21 trustees are white. With roughly 270,000 members, the group represents little more than a quarter of U.S. doctors.

The AMA plan in part calls fir diversifying its own staff and adding members who are from Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and LGBTQ communities as well as embedding anti-racist activities and education at every level of the organization.

Dr. Aletha Maybank, the AMA’s chief health equity officer: ’’We’re going to be holding ourselves accountable.”

Dr. Aletha Maybank, the AMA’s chief health equity officer: ’’We’re going to be holding ourselves accountable.”

The influential advocacy group also plans to use its clout to push for health equity government policies and to create and deliver anti-racist training for medical students, doctors and health systems.

In recent years, the 174-year-old AMA has acknowledged its own racist past — which has included efforts to bar Black physicians from joining and fighting against desegregating hospitals. Last November, it declared racism a public health threat.

But it also has come under fire just this year over a Journal of the American Medical Association podcast. The podcast’s host, who is white, questioned whether structural racism exists, and a promotional tweet said, “No physician is racist.”

A deputy editor at JAMA, one of the nation’s leading medical journals, ended up resigning. And the journal’s chief editor was suspended. An oversight committee’s review is ongoing.

Dr. David Ansell of Rush University Medical Center: a “landmark document.”

Dr. David Ansell of Rush University Medical Center: a “landmark document.”
Rich Hein / Sun-Times file

Still, Dr. David Ansell, a senior vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, called the 83-page plan ’’a landmark document” for the usually conservative AMA and a road map for others to follow.

’’It really should be taught widely across medicine because it’s language that has not been central to the organization or the practice of medicine in the United States and needs to be,” said Ansell, who is a primary-care physician.

Dr. Brittani James: “a great first step.”

Dr. Brittani James: “a great first step.”
University of Illinois at Chicago

Dr. Brittani James, an anti-racism activist and family practitioner at the University of Illinois Hospital at Chicago, called the AMA plan ’’a great first step” and said its goals are impressive.

Dr. Raymond Givens, a New York physician who has been a critic of the AMA, said the group’s slow response to the mishandled February podcast doesn’t offer much hope for its broader plans.

’’People are dying on a daily basis from the same structural racism that they are now acknowledging,” Givens said. ‘’Given that, there’s a need to act as quickly as is responsible.’’

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