CHICAGO — Transplant surgeon Clive Callender has hurtful memories of being the only black doctor at medical meetings in the 1970s, met with stark silence when he pleaded for better access to transplant organs for blacks.
So when the American Medical Association (AMA) formally apologized last Thursday for more than a century of policies that excluded blacks from a group long considered the voice of American doctors, it was belated, but still welcome.
“My attitude is not one of bitterness, but one of gratefulness that finally they have seen the error of their ways,” said Callender, now 71 and a respected leader at Howard University Hospital in Washington.
It was not until the 1960s that AMA delegates took a strong stance against policies dating to the 1800s that barred blacks from some state and local medical societies.
Until then, AMA delegates had resisted pleas to speak out forcefully against discrimination or to condemn the smaller medical groups, which historically have had a big role in shaping AMA policy.
While the AMA itself didn’t have a formal policy barring black doctors, physicians were required to be members of the local groups to participate in the AMA, said Dr. Ronald Davis, the group’s immediate past president.
It is conceivable patient care suffered “to the extent that our practices may have impeded the ability of African-American physicians to interact collegially with white physicians,” Davis said in an interview last Thursday.
“That would certainly be another reason why we would have profound regret for our past practices,” he said.
In statement on its Web site, the AMA apologized “for its past history of racial inequality toward African American physicians, and shares its current efforts to increase the ranks of minority physicians and their participation in the AMA.”
The apology is among initiatives at the nation’s largest doctors’ group to reduce racial disparities in medicine and to recruit more blacks to become doctors and to join the AMA.
AMA data suggest fewer than 2 percent of its members are black, and that fewer than 3 percent of America’s 1 million medical students and physicians are black.
While that is based on a survey in which the race of more than one-third of doctors was unknown, several black physicians said the percentages ring true.
It is not the first time the AMA has apologized for its discriminatory history. In 2005, Dr. John Nelson, then AMA’s president, offered a similar apology at a meeting on improving health care and eliminating disparities.
That came a year after the AMA joined the National Medical Association (NMA), a black doctors’ group, and other minority doctors’ groups in forming the Commission to End Health Care Disparities.
NMA leaders said AMA’s history of discrimination has contributed to health disparities for blacks that continue today.
“These persistent, race-based health disparities have led to a precipitous decline in the health of African Americans when compared to their white counterparts and the population as a whole,” said Dr. Nedra Joyner, head of the board of trustees for the black doctors’ association.
Dr. Nelson Adams, the group’s president, called the apology courageous and AMA’s vow to work to reduce racial disparities “extremely important.”
Dr. Otis Brawley, the black chief financial officer of the American Cancer Society, also applauded the move.
“It is true that what the AMA did historically was awful,” Brawley said. “There were AMA local chapters that actually had rules against black members well into the late 1960s, and policies that made blacks not feel comfortable well into the 1980s.”
Brawley said he has never been an AMA member, but that the apology “certainly makes me much more interested in working with them.”
The American Medical Association's statement on, and apology for, "its past history of racial inequality toward African-American physicians" can be found here.
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