Posted on November 19, 2020

AMA: Racism Is a Threat to Public Health

Kevin B. O'Reilly, American Medical Association, November 16, 2020

Building on its June pledge to confront systemic racism and police brutality, the AMA has taken action to explicitly recognize racism as a public health threat and detailed a plan to mitigate its effects.

“The AMA recognizes that racism negatively impacts and exacerbates health inequities among historically marginalized communities. Without systemic and structural-level change, health inequities will continue to exist, and the overall health of the nation will suffer,” said AMA Board Member Willarda V. Edwards, MD, MBA.


To that end, the AMA House of Delegates (HOD) adopted new policy to:

  • Acknowledge that, although the primary drivers of racial health inequity are systemic and structural racism, racism and unconscious bias within medical research and health care delivery have caused and continue to cause harm to marginalized communities and society as a whole.
  • Recognize racism, in its systemic, cultural, interpersonal and other forms, as a serious threat to public health, to the advancement of health equity and a barrier to appropriate medical care.
  • Support the development of policy to combat racism and its effects.
  • Encourage governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations to increase funding for research into the epidemiology of risks and damages related to racism and how to prevent or repair them.
  • Encourage the development, implementation and evaluation of undergraduate, graduate and continuing medical education programs and curricula that engender greater understanding of the causes, influences, and effects of systemic, cultural, institutional and interpersonal racism, as well as how to prevent and ameliorate the health effects of racism.


Ending racial essentialism

In addition, the HOD took action to counteract the notion of racial essentialism, which is identified in a resolution presented at the Special Meeting as “the belief in a genetic or biological essence that defines all members of a racial category.”

Delegates adopted new policy to:

  • Recognize that the false conflation of race with inherent biological or genetic traits leads to inadequate examination of true underlying disease risk factors, which exacerbates existing health inequities.
  • Encourage characterizing race as a social construct, rather than an inherent biological trait.
  • Recognize that when race is described as a risk factor, it is more likely to be a proxy for influences including structural racism than a proxy for genetics.


“The AMA is dedicated to dismantling racist and discriminatory policies and practices across all of health care, and that includes the way we define race in medicine,” said AMA Board Member Michael Suk, MD, JD, MPH, MBA. “We believe it is not sufficient for medicine to be nonracist, which is why the AMA is committed to pushing for a shift in thinking from race as a biological risk factor to a deeper understanding of racism as a determinant of health.”