AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Journal of Ethics Header

AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Virtual Mentor. June 2014, Volume 16, Number 6: 419-422.

From the Editor

  • Print
  • |
  • View PDF

Hazardous Intersections: Race, Ethnicity, and Medicine

Introduction to the June 2014 issue of Virtual Mentor on the intersections of race, ethnicity, and medicine.

Race and ethnicity have always played a pivotal role in the shaping of society in the United States. From the birth of this nation, and for centuries to follow, race and ethnicity defined the bounds of citizenship [1-3]. With each consecutive wave of immigration, these bounds have been challenged, contested, and redefined, as the US has become an increasingly polychromatic mosaic of racial and ethnic categories; in fact, the very boundaries between these categories are progressively being blurred by cultural assimilation and intermarriage, calling into question the very meaning of race and ethnicity [4-5].

When Barack Obama was elected as the first United States president of African descent, much of the popular media hailed the advent of a “postracial” America [6-7]. But, as attested by the many controversies that have followed, from continuing debates over affirmative action to questions about the impact of race in high-profile criminal cases [8-12], one must wonder: what does it mean to be “postracial”? Is it achievable—or even desirable?

Far from being immune to the influence of societal mores on race and ethnicity, science and medicine have in fact been deeply shaped by prevailing racial attitudes—from the segregated patient wards of days past to current practices regarding the race-specific approval of certain drugs [13]. Conversely, biomedical advances have altered societal conceptions of race, not least of all with the advent of the human genome project and the debate over the biological significance (or absence thereof) of race [14-16]. Some of the most profound and enduring effects of society’s racial attitudes on medicine and public health are the health disparities between racial groups that, to this day, elude resolution. These health disparities, in turn, deprive underserved communities of the chance to achieve their full potential as members of our society [17, 18].

This issue of Virtual Mentor explores the many intersections of race, ethnicity, and medicine, touching upon both historical events and emerging dilemmas.

In the first case commentary, Tom E. Finucane, MD, questions the commonplace practice of citing patients’ race in clinical presentations on the ward—and students’ role in challenging practices that they find questionable. Ruth M. Farrell, MD, MA, Holly Pederson, MD, and Shilpa Padia, MD, explore emerging challenges caused by the widespread availability of direct-to-consumer genetic testing, a timely issue given the Food and Drug Administration’s recent warning to genetic testing provider 23andMe [19]. In a third case commentary, Brian W. Powers and Sachin H. Jain, MD, MBA, address the tricky question of how to respond to patients’ racial and ethnic biases. An opinion from the AMA’s Code of Medical Ethics alerts physicians to the presence of race-related disparities in health care and provides guidelines for minimizing them.

Race and ethnicity also play a significant role in the research that informs clinical practice and policies. Raegan W. Durant, MD, MPH, describes evolving policies on the inclusion of minority populations in health research, and Abdul El-Sayed, MD, DPhil, presents innovative research methods to better dissect the complex, reciprocal effects between race/ethnicity and health. LaPrincess C. Brewer, MD, MPH, and Lisa A. Cooper, MD, MPH, review recent research findings that are transforming our understanding of how race and ethnicity impact health outcomes.

Any effort to change the ways in which race and ethnicity affect the practice of medicine must include the education of physicians in training. Katherine Bakke, Kartik Sidhar, and Arno Kumagai, MD, present an innovative approach to incorporating discussions of race, ethnicity, and privilege in medical education that goes well beyond the notion of “cultural competency.” Constitutional challenges related to affirmative action policies in medical education are debated by Shanta Driver, JD, and Abigail Thernstrom, PhD.

Drawing from the lessons of the past, Robert Baker, PhD, recounts the struggle of African American physicians to be included in the American Medical Association, and Brooke Cunningham, MD, PhD, reviews the ever-evolving struggle to define race and ethnicity biologically, culturally, or perhaps as something that becomes embodied over time. Finally, Thomas P. Duffy, MD, shares his experience of learning medicine in a segregated hospital and his reflections on cultivating conscious and critical awareness of our own attitudes and practices, so that we may see and rectify our misdeeds.

As our society’s understanding of race and ethnicity evolves, we must learn from the sins of the past and remain vigilant about the ways in which we may be harming or failing our patients today. At stake lies the medical profession’s ability to uphold the promise of “complete physical, mental and social well-being” for all [20]. It is my sincere hope that this issue will be informative to readers and that it will trigger both reflection and action so that we may contribute to greater justice and equality.


  1. Brunsma DL, Rockquemore KA. What does “black” mean? Exploring the epistemological stranglehold of racial categorization. Crit Sociol. 2002;28(1-2):101-121.
  2. Glenn EN. Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2002.
  3. Brodkin K. How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press; 1998.
  4. Lee J, Bean FD. America’s changing color lines: immigration, race/ethnicity, and multiracial identification. Annual Rev Sociol. 2004(30):221-242.
  5. Waters MC. Immigration, intermarriage, and the challenges of measuring racial/ethnic identities. Am J Public Health. 2000;90(11):1735-1737.
  6. Rogers M, Smith RM, King DS. Barack Obama and the future of American racial politics. Du Bois Rev. 2009;6:25-35.
  7. Teasley M, Ikard D. Barack Obama and the politics of race: the myth of postracism in America. J Black Studies. 2010;40(3):411-425.
  8. Blake V. Affirmative action and medical school admissions. Virtual Mentor. 2012;14(12):1003-1007 http://virtualmentor.ama-assn. org/2012/12/hlaw1-1212.html. Accessed April 30, 2014.
  9. Smith RH. Affirmative action survives Fisher (Sort of), but what about Schuette? Suffolk University Law Rev. 2013;1:65. schuette-smith/. Accessed April 30, 2014.
  10. Blow CM. The curious case of Trayvon Martin. New York Times. March 16, 2012. 03/17/opinion/blow-the-curious- case-of-trayvon-martin.html?_r=0. Accessed April 30, 2014.
  11. Lee C. Making race salient: Trayvon Martin and implicit bias in a not yet post-racial society. NCL Rev. 2013;91:1555-1817.
  12. Von Blum P. In defense of identity politics. Tikkun. 2013;28(4):23-27.
  13. Fofana MO. The spectre of race in American medicine. Med Humanit. 2013;39(2):137-141.
  14. Burchard EG, Ziv E, Coyle N, et al. The importance of race and ethnic backgrounding biomedical research and clinical practice. N Engl J Med. 2003;348(12):1170-1175.
  15. Schwartz RS. Racial profiling in medical research. N Engl J Med. 2001;344(18):1392-1393.
  16. Root M. The problem of race in medicine. Philos Soc Sci. 2001;31(1):20-39.
  17. Meyer PA, Yoon PW, Kaufmann RB; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Introduction: CDC health disparities and inequalities report – United States, 2013. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2013;62(Suppl 3):3-5.
  18. Smith JP. Healthy bodies and thick wallets: the dual relation between health and economic status. J Econ Perspect. 1999;13(2):144-166.
  19. Zettler PJ, Sherkow JS, Greely HT. 23andMe, the Food and Drug Administration, and the future of genetic testing. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):493-494.
  20. World Health Organization. Constitution [1989]. restricted/handle/10665/36851. Accessed April 30, 2014.

Mariam O. Fofana MS-3 Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Bloomberg School of Public Health Baltimore, Maryland


This work was supported by the Johns Hopkins Medical Scientist Training Program (NIH training grant 5T32GM007309) and the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. The author is grateful to the organizers and participants of the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE) for the experiences and discussions that inspired this issue.

The viewpoints expressed on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.