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Published: Tuesday, 7/15/2008

Racism wounded medicine

AT ONE time, the American Medical Association had an invisible shingle outside its door indicating that black doctors need not apply.

For the better part of the last century, the AMA unofficially excluded African-Americans from its ranks. As the nation's most influential group of physicians, the AMA held a view against integrating itself, and the policy had a profound effect on health care and how it was practiced in minority communities.

As a result, the AMA violated the "do no harm" spirit of the Hippocratic Oath. Harm was done not only to individuals who got substandard care, but also to society in general. In the decades that Jim Crow was allowed to wear a stethoscope, disparities in health care between blacks and whites in America increased unabated.

Racial attitudes within the organization didn't begin to change until the 1960s, when doctors began questioning the policies that barred blacks from becoming members.

Today, African-American doctors make up less than 2 percent of the AMA's membership. That's a source of shame for a group that used to fear diversity, but now covets it.

Last week, the AMA formally apologized for a century of policies that "impeded the ability of African-American physicians to interact collegially with white physicians." The organization did not equivocate; it said it was sorry for practicing racial inequality and discrimination and insisted that it is now committed to reversing its legacy by recruiting more blacks into its ranks and into the profession.

The hope is that disparities in health care between blacks and whites can be closed. Such a noble goal will come about only when physicians themselves begin to heal the old wounds of racism.

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