The nation’s largest, most influential doctors’ group is holding its annual policymaking meeting amid backlash over its most ambitious plan ever to help end centuries-old racism and prejudice in all areas of the medical establishment.
There is a vocal minority of dissident physicians, including some white Southern representatives who accuse the American Medical Association of reverse discrimination.
Dr. Gerald Harmon, the group’s incoming president, is a 69-year-old white native from rural South Carolina who knows he is not the most obvious choice to lead the AMA at this critical time. But he seems intent on breaking stereotypes and clearly stated in a phone interview, “This plan is not up for debate.”
The six-day meeting, which began on Friday, is taking place virtually because of the pandemic. It provides doctors with the opportunity to adopt policies that dictate how the AMA should implement its health equity plan. But some white doctors say the plan goes too far.
Announced last month, the plan is unusually bold for a historically cautious AMA, acknowledging that racism and white privilege exist in the medical establishment and have contributed to health inequalities laid bare during the coronavirus pandemic.
Parts of the plan contain the language of critical race theory, which makes reference to the theft of native land and centuries-old white supremacy. Dissidents took offense and attacked the plan in documents recently leaked online. A leaked draft of a letter to AMA officials called parts of the plan “divisive, accusatory and abusive”.
“White men are repeatedly held oppressed and to some extent responsible for inequalities. This … implies opposite discrimination,” the letter said. Dr. Claudette Dalton, a member of the AMA’s Southeastern delegation It was signed by five state delegations representing four other physicians and 68 AMA representatives.
Dalton said in an email that the draft letter had not been sent, but that he declined multiple requests for comment.
Critics argue that the plan should be put to a vote by delegates, but it reflects existing policies. It was developed by the officers and staff of AMA based on the measures adopted in the previous policy making meetings. This includes a declaration last November that racism is a public health threat.
Harmon’s attempt to dismantle the stereotype involves reflecting on his own experiences. He described a recent encounter with an older black man diagnosed with COVID-19 pneumonia at a hospital in South Carolina. The man seemed to be getting better, but was not very communicative and gave mostly one-word answers to questions.
The man’s name was familiar, so Harmon sat down by the bed and investigated. ‘What kind of work did you do?’ ‘Mechanic.’ ‘which type?’ ‘Jet engine.'”
With an Air Force background, Harmon shared that he knew about jet engines, and the patient became excited. He worked at a NASA research center in Virginia, where Harmon was once assigned.
“He was literally a rocket scientist,” Harmon said.
Harmon acknowledged the racial stereotypes behind his initial impression. He said that the AMA wants to counter this kind of thinking. But he also noted that he took the time to learn more about the patient and find common ground—something that black patients say white physicians often don’t.
American physicians, including AMA members, are highly white. With approximately 270,000 members, the AMA represents more than a quarter of the country’s doctors.
One measure at this week’s meeting will be that the group will create guidelines to help hospitals, academic medical centers and doctors’ offices make and prominently display anti-racism policies that explicitly address racist behavior and “subtle aggression”. define. They are sometimes subtle behaviors and actions that can be as damaging as open racism and prejudice, including the belief that black patients are not educated or that female doctors are cleaning workers.
Amid strong evidence that patients are best treated when they are treated by physicians who look like them, another measure calls for the AMA to step up efforts to create a more diverse physician workforce. This would include advocating for programs to encourage interest in medical careers among high school and college students of different races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations.
Other proposals on the agenda of the meeting called for the AMA to promote policies that do not penalize medical students and doctors for wearing natural hairstyles or cultural headwear, and policies against criminalizing transgender treatment.
Voting will be held from Monday to Wednesday. Harmon begins his one-year term as president on Tuesday.
The plan comes at a time of racial reckoning and as black practitioners increasingly speak out against racism.
Dr. Stella Sappho, an HIV specialist in New York City, said she never thought the AMA represented people like her—a black woman whose parents are from Ghana—until the health equity plan came out. She organized a letter-writing campaign among doctors to urge the AMA leadership to resist pressure against the plan.
“What they do matters to everyone. We’re all watching. I hope they don’t hold back,” Sappho said.
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