By Mara Gordon June 16, 2020
As doctors and nurses across the United States continue to gather outside hospitals and clinics to protest police brutality and racism as part of the White Coats for Black Lives movement, LaShyra Nolen, a first-year student at Harvard Medical School, says it’s time to take medical schools to task over racism, too.
The fight for equality in medical education isn’t new, says Nolen, the first black woman to serve as Harvard Medical School’s student council president. But she’s hopeful that the national conversation around racism in society will force hospitals and medical schools to address racism within their own institutions.
“It wasn’t until over a week of riots that people started to pay attention,” Nolen says. “We bring black med students to these institutions, and they fill quotas, and they make institutions look good. But we’re not protecting them. We need to protect them.”
Studies show that students of color and those who are LGBTQ are more likely than other classmates to experience mistreatment during their training. Research published earlier this year in JAMA Internal Medicine, for example, suggests that minority students are more likely to face discriminatory comments, public humiliation and inappropriate sexual advances during their medical education.
Nolen has been heartened by the outpouring of online and in-person activism she’s seen, ranging from Twitter testimonials to opinion pieces in major medical journals. She’s been involved in efforts at Harvard and nationally to combat racism in medical education.
But there is much work to be done, she says.
The JAMA Internal Medicine study of more than 27,500 medical students in 2016 and 2017 found that 38% of students nationwide from racial and ethnic groups that are under-represented in medicine — including students who are black, Latino or Native American — reported mistreatment. That’s compared to only 24% of white students across the U.S. who said they had been mistreated during medical school.
The results raise questions, the study authors say, about racism in medical education and its implications for the persistently low numbers of people of color who become doctors.
“If these small disadvantages accrue throughout medical school, it could be contributing to keeping certain populations out of medicine,” says Katherine Hill, the study’s lead author and a medical student at Yale. “Discriminatory comments can have a negative impact — both on the people who are targeted, and on bystanders.”