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A Professional Responsibility and Moral Imperative

By San Chandra, Pillar 1 student, Class of 2023

As current and future health care professionals, we devote our lives to healing. This responsibility is not limited to the bedside. Our vocation asks us to expand our role as healers into education and advocacy efforts as well. Understanding the roles racism and discrimination play in the health care field and how our personal biases affect patient care are our major concerns. In our broader roles as engaged and informed citizens, we are also called to investigate how our biases and aspects of systemic racism impact marginalized groups in our day-to-day lives.

Racism in society is not a new concept, and the medical field is not immune to its devastating effects. The death of George Floyd sparked global outrage and protests this year and forced major businesses and organizations to re-assess the foundations on which they are built. Medical students across the nation began to address the issues in their own home states, and students at USD’s Sanford School of Medicine are doing the same.

Fellow second-year medical student Ganeva Kendall and I sought to answer the question: How do we become better allies to patients marginalized by racism? As a result of asking that question, the Anti-Racism Discussion Group was born. We invited students from all four medical school classes, as well as some faculty members. The group currently has over 100 members. Some members meet every other week to discuss topics like race-based medicine, environmental racism, reproductive justice and artificial intelligence and racism in medicine. Classmates are encouraged to lead the discussion groups and present on topics they are passionate about, sharing relevant articles and videos from factual resources. This student-led group fosters close relationships between classmates, peers in other medical school classes and faculty members.

White Coats For Black Lives is a national organization with chapters at various medical schools in the country. Our medical school formed a chapter this year with the goal being to promote racial justice in communities, medical care and medical education. The chapter is currently working to foster important changes in line with these goals.

The Racial Justice in Medicine group was created by recently retired Dean Dr. Mary Nettleman and consists of students from the second, third and fourth-year medical school classes and members of the medical school administration, including new dean, Dr. Tim Ridgway. The purpose of the group is to make additions to the curriculum and to increase diversity efforts by the medical school in order to better educate medical students on outdated and racist practices and prepare us to serve increasingly diverse patient populations. As we all know, the medical education process starts at the admissions office. Applicants are now being asked questions regarding their understanding of inequities in health and how principles of social justice will influence their careers.

"The Sanford School of Medicine is committed to be an anti-racist, equitable, diverse and inclusive organization. We have to do more than simply make statements; we need to act."
– Dr. Tim Ridgway

Regarding current students, the group has already instituted several curricular changes including a session for first-year students to learn about the social determinants of health and the history of racial injustices in medicine, followed by case-based discussions on handling bias in clinical settings. In addition, first-year pre-clerkship directors are revamping didactic content to incorporate how systemic racism plays into current medical knowledge. For students in their clerkship years, racial inequalities and bias topics are being added to the Clinical Ethics courses.

These changes are just the beginning. As health care providers, we are accustomed to mastering rapidly changing medical knowledge to best serve our patients; our efforts to combat racism in medicine are well in line with this aim. Dean Ridgway stated it best: “The Sanford School of Medicine is committed to be an anti-racist, equitable, diverse and inclusive organization. Students’ voices in the Racial Justice in Medicine and Anti-Racism discussion groups play a critical role in helping us meet that commitment. I am counting on our students to hold us, as an institution, accountable for achieving true transformational change in these areas. We have to do more than simply make statements; we need to act.”