AMA apology is the first step in improving minority representation

Dan Anderson

It was an extraordinary statement from the nation’s largest group of health care professionals: “The American Medical Association (AMA) today apologizes for its past history of racial inequality toward African-American physicians.”

It got a lot of play in the media. After their attention turned to the next headline of the day, an article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that covers what transpired in the 161 years the AMA kept mum on the topic.

The details by a panel of experts were nothing less than scandalous.

From its very beginning, the AMA promoted a selective enforcement of membership standards to exclude African-Americans from membership. This came at the end of the Civil War, which led to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, but not an integrated medical society. Indeed, society at large was not integrated as a result of the constitutional changes, either.

Well into the 1960s, according to the slate of authors of the JAMA article, the AMA stood silently while state and local medical associations banned African-Americans from membership. Without a local affiliation, black doctors were unable to join the AMA.

Even as social and political leaders were tearing down “separate-but-equal” barriers and building up civil rights legislation, the AMA did nothing to desegregate hospitals.

While the association’s apology was by all accounts sincere and meaningful, it skimmed the surface. I commend to you the powerful background to that apology, a full accounting of the “past history of racial inequality toward African-American physicians.” It can be found here.

The apology is meaningful to a lot of people. We spoke with some of them win our cover story, which begins on page 36. But, as our cover illustrates, there’s still a huge minority deficit in the medical field, especially in imaging.

As the authors of the JAMA report note, “African-Americans in 2006 represented 12.3% of the US population, but just 2.2% of physicians and medical students. This is less than the proportion in 1910 (2.5%).”

The numbers aren’t much better for other minorities. All non-white physicians and students combined in 2006 added up to only 14.6%. And women represented just 29% of physicians and medical students. That’s why we chose the cover illustration we did, devoid of someone specific, as is our norm. We wanted to start the discussion from the very beginning of the magazine: What does a diverse medical imaging community look like?

To get some insight, I spoke with Vaughn Payne, MD, who, until his recent retirement, had been a practicing radiologist and professor at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, one of a handful of historically black medical schools.

The answer lies in the actions taken now and in the near future to improve enrollment of minority students in medical school, by introducing younger students to science and promoting the myriad career possibilities.

The answer lies in owning up to past transgressions, as the AMA has done.

The answer lies in their efforts, and others’, to continue to increase the number of minorities entering health fields through scholarships and mentorships.

The answer lies in all of us.

Dan Anderson
Editorial Director