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U.S. physicians apologize to black doctors

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The American Medical Association, the largest physicians’ group in the United States, apologized to black doctors on Thursday for a history of racial discrimination.

A doctor checks the blood pressure of a patient at a clinic in downtown Los Angeles July 30, 2007. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The AMA said it will work to increase the ranks of minority physicians and their participation in the association.

The apology arose from the work of an independent panel of experts commissioned in 2005 to study the history of what the AMA called “the racial divide in organized medicine.”

“The point of the apology is to acknowledge our policies and practices in the past that discriminated against African American physicians,” Dr. Ronald Davis, the AMA’s immediate past president, said in a telephone interview.

Details of the AMA panel’s work will be released next week on the Web site of the association’s Institute for Ethics to coincide with publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Dr. Nelson Adams, president of the National Medical Association which represents black physicians in the United States, said the NMA was founded in 1895 because of the AMA’s discrimination.

“Black doctors couldn’t be members of the American Medical Association,” Adams said in a telephone interview.

“AMA looked the other way when local medical associations worked to exclude most black physicians from becoming members. Back then and even as recently as the early ‘70s, in order to get hospital privileges, lots of times you had to be a member of the county medical society,” Adams said.

“If you couldn’t get on the county medical society, you couldn’t get hospital privileges,” he said.

Adams said the AMA also refused to oppose the construction of segregated hospitals funded by the federal government.

Davis called such incidents “pieces of history that have come to light as a result of the work of the independent writing team which the AMA established and supported.”


Davis said the AMA has “a feeling of profound regret and embarrassment for what has been uncovered. That is why we are issuing this apology, but also because we believe that by confronting our past we can build a better future.”

Adams said the AMA’s discriminatory policies have hurt health care for blacks. “In the vast majority of the leading causes of death, black folk are still at the top of the heap,” he said.

Blacks in the United States have a 25 percent higher rate for all cancers; a 30 percent higher rate of heart disease, a 40 percent higher rate of stroke and a 50 percent higher rate of diabetes, Adams said.

Several studies have shown that even when blacks have the same income, insurance and education as whites, they do not fare as well when it comes to getting medical care.

“When AMA doesn’t get on board with these things, it impacts all of us. It certainly impacts the black community disproportionately,” Adams said.

He said the AMA’s apology will allow the groups to join forces to help address some of these problems.

He is particularly eager to increase numbers of black physicians, who make up only 3 percent to 4 percent of all doctors in the United States. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, blacks account for 13 percent of the U.S. population.

“There are fewer African American physicians per capita to date than there were in 1910,” Adams said.

The AMA, founded in 1847, has 250,000 members.

Editing by Maggie Fox and Vicki Allen