Honor the oath

Our view : Medical association's apology was long overdue

July 13, 2008

The touchstone of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians is, "Do no harm." But for years, the American Medical Association, the nation's premier professional organization of physicians, ignored that promise when it came to African-American doctors and patients.

Last week's apology by the AMA for past racism in its institutions and membership was thus welcome though belated. Today it seems incredible that not so long ago, gifted black physicians such as Johns Hopkins' Levi Watkins and Benjamin S. Carson couldn't join the AMA, attend its professional meetings or publish in its journal because of the color of their skin.

But the effects of medical bias were felt by more than just black doctors. By acquiescing in injustice, the AMA perpetuated attitudes and practices that contributed to a health gap between blacks and whites that still exists. Dr. Ronald M. Davis, a former AMA president, acknowledged that history when he said the AMA has "a feeling of profound regret and embarrassment. ... That is why we are issuing this apology, but also because we believe that by confronting our past we can build a better future."

Virtually every study of Americans' overall health shows African-Americans are at higher risk for serious chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. The black infant mortality rate is more than twice the rate for whites. From asthma and obesity to breast cancer and HIV, blacks get less timely and effective health care than whites. And the disparities are growing.

It's not just black doctors who are owed an apology but all who suffered from unequal access to medical care that the AMA condoned for so long, despite the heroic efforts of individual doctors to treat black patients and welcome black physicians to the profession. They are the true models for young doctors taking the oath today.

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