Doctors' Group Issues Apology for Racism

By Holly Watt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008; 2:04 PM

The country's largest medical association today issued a formal apology today for its historical antipathy toward African American doctors, expressing regret for a litany of transgressions, including barring black physicians from its ranks for decades and remaining silent during battles on landmark legislation to end racial discrimination.

The apology marks one of the rare times a major national organization has expressed contrition for its role in the segregation and discrimination that black people have experienced in the United States.

The American Medical Association (AMA) issued the apology after assembling a panel of experts to analyze the history of the racial divide in medicine. The independent panel has produced a report, due to be published in the July 16 Journal of the American Medical Association, which explores the historical discrimination.

"The apology is important because a heritage of discrimination is evident in the under-representation of African Americans in medicine generally and in the AMA in particular," said the report's lead author, Robert B. Baker, professor of philosophy at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and director of the Union Graduate College-Mount Sinai School of Medicine Bioethics Program.

"Patterns of segregated medicine still haunt American health care. The legacy of these decisions affects minority patients on a daily basis," Baker said.

Ronald M. Davis, the immediate past president of the AMA, said his organization was proud to support the research into the history of the racial divide.

"By confronting the past we can embrace the future," he said in a statement posted today on the AMA Web site. "The AMA is committed to improving its relationship with minority physicians and to increasing the ranks of minority physicians so that the workforce accurately represents the diversity of America's patients."

The panel noted that the AMA permitted state and local medical associations to exclude black physicians, effectively barring these doctors from the national organization. In the early 20th century, the organization listed black doctors as "colored" in its national physician directory. In addition, the AMA was silent during debates over the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and, for years, declined to join efforts to force hospitals built with federal funds to not discriminate.

In a commentary on the panel's report, Davis said many of the organization's questionable actions reflected the "social mores and racial discrimination" that existed for much of the country's history. But, he wrote, that should 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," Davis wrote. "The AMA failed to do so and has apologized for that failure."

"Our goal is to identify and study racial and ethnic health care disparities in order to eradicate them," Davis said.

Richard Allen Williams, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles and the president of the Minority Health Institute, said the apology is "an excellent gesture of goodwill."


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