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The spectre of race in American medicine
  1. Mariam O Fofana1,2
  1. 1Department of Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
  2. 2Medical Scientist Training Program, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
  1. Correspondence to Mariam Fofana, Department of Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 1830 E. Monument St, Suite 2-300, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA; mariam{at}jhmi.edu

Abstract

Controversies and debates surrounding race have long been a fixture in American medicine. In the past, the biological concept of race—the idea that race is biologically determined and meaningful—has served to justify the institution of slavery and the conduct of unethical research trials. Although these days may seem far behind, contemporary debates over the race-specific approval of drugs and the significance of genetic differences are evidence that race still yields tremendous influence on medical research and clinical practice. In many ways, the use of race in medicine today reflects the internalisation of racial hierarchies borne out of the history of slavery and state-mandated segregation, and there is still much uncertainty over its benefits and harms. Although using race in research can help elucidate disparities, the reflexive use of race as a variable runs the risk of reifying the biological concept of race and blinding researchers to important underlying factors such as socioeconomic status. Similarly, in clinical practice, the use of race in assessing a patient's risk of certain conditions (eg, sickle cell) turns harmful when the heuristic becomes a rule. Through selected historical and contemporary examples, I aim to show how the biological concept of race that gave rise to past abuses remains alive and harmful, and propose changes in medical education as a potential solution. By learning from the past, today's physicians will be better armed to discern—and correct—the ways in which contemporary medicine perpetuates historical injustices.

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