David J. Skorton
In recent weeks, the topic of diversity training — typically an internal matter for organizations — has generated front-page news. The spark was an executive order banning certain racial sensitivity training programs for federal grantees and contractors— and extending similar restrictions for federal agencies issued earlier last month.
I and my colleagues at the Association of American Medical Colleges believe these restrictions are deeply problematic, in no small part because of the threat they pose to the health of our nation.
The AAMC is a group of more than 600 medical schools, teaching hospitals and academic medical societies, working in communities across the country to improve the health of all living in America — not least, those affected by the pandemic.
As medical professionals, we’ve seen firsthand the damage that conscious and unconscious racial bias does to our ability to provide health care to those in need. And we’ve seen how effective diversity, equity and inclusion training programs can be in mitigating that harm.
For those of us in medicine, establishing trusting relationships with the communities we serve is one of our most fundamental obligations. But when it comes to communities of color, it is an obligation we have too often failed to fulfill.
The medical profession has a long history of mistreating individuals and communities of color — for example, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, the use of Henrietta Lacks’ tumor cells for scientific purposes without her consent and medical experimentation on enslaved women.
False beliefs persist
Such mistreatment is not confined to the past. As recent research demonstrates, racial bias among health care professionals is pervasive and pernicious. According to one analysis, more than half of medical students and residents hold false beliefs about supposed biological differences between Black and white people (for example that Black people have less-sensitive nerve endings than whites do).
It should be no surprise, then, that Black patients are 22 percent less likely than white patients to be prescribed pain medication.
The pandemic has cast in stark relief the terrible effects of racism and inequity in our health care system and other sectors. For decades, our country has been underinvesting in public health services and infrastructure, particularly in communities of color. As a result, communities of color and indigenous communities have experienced a disproportionate number of COVID-19 infections and deaths.
I’ve worked in medicine as a cardiologist and researcher, in higher education as president of two universities and as the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In all those roles, I have come to understand that diversity is central to our greatness as a nation, and that we have a long way to go to understand each other.
More work to do
The overwhelming majority of medical professionals care deeply about the well-being of the people — all the people — they serve. But if we are to rebuild understanding and trust, caring deeply isn’t enough.
To end the systemic racism in our profession, we must understand deeply, too. White medical professionals must listen to our colleagues and patients of color. We must identify, acknowledge and work to eliminate our own conscious and unconscious biases.
DEI training is a powerful tool for doing so. In the medical community, DEI programs help reduce the prevalence of racial bias and discrimination, bigoted comments, mistreatment and harassment. This training gives medical professionals the techniques and insights they need to build relationships of mutual respect with each other and with those they serve.
That’s why the AAMC will increase our commitment to DEI training.
Today, we are releasing a framework for addressing racism in academic medicine. In it, we lay out our plans to drive change as individuals, within our organization and our communities, to work with our members and constituents, and to speak out in the public square on the urgent issue of racism in our field.
We believe that dialogue and partnership are essential to the advancement of societal health. For that reason, the AAMC’s framework is also a commitment to work collaboratively with organizations in Washington, D.C., where our headquarters are located, and in the communities our member organizations serve across the country.
DEI training will serve as the foundation for all those efforts. As we stated just after the White House issued its executive order, DEI training is more necessary now than ever. I look forward to participating, with my colleagues, in these important conversations. Like all of us, I have more to learn and more to do.
Addressing structural racism and rebuilding trust with communities of color won’t be easy. It will require humility, determination and uncomfortable conversations.
But no matter how difficult, we must do the work. Our patients’ lives depend on it.
Dr. David J. Skorton, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Previously, he was the 13th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, president of Cornell University and president of the University of Iowa.