When it comes to advocacy on matters of race and social justice, medicine’s C.V. is, at best, mediocre. 19th century medical students learned their craft by dissecting the grave-robbed cadavers of African Americans, immigrants, and the poor—the bodies that wouldn’t be missed or spark protest. Decades of translational research relies on an immortal cell line extracted, without consent, from African-American Henrietta Lacks in the 1950s. And, of course, there was that clinical experiment for “bad blood.”
Which makes it all the more fascinating, then, how medical students nationwide responded to the recent controversies surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner:
On one level, it’s incredible to see medical students taking a stand, making ripples nationwide, and letting all our patients know that we stand with them. The white coat—even a short one—lends reputation and gravitas, and #WhiteCoats4BlackLives proves that if we stand (or die-in) together, people listen. As tomorrow’s doctors, we should be inspired from these events to capture that attention and guide public discourse on society’s leading issues: access to care, women’s health, medical errors, gun control … the opportunities are immense.
And yet, on another level, it feels somewhat hollow to die-in together, to call our campuses to attention with powerful gestures, to feel the pride of a national movement … only to return to clinic or class an hour later, ready to resume our usual routines. We have the public’s attention, but now I’m tempted to follow up with a question I encountered too often as an Indian-American liberal arts major: “What are you going to do with that?” If social media is any indication, we grabbed the microphone for a moment, dropped it, and walked off the stage. That’s not social advocacy; it’s feel-good activism.
In the days to come, we have to remember that raising awareness is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. It’s imperative that our objective is continuity, not complacency. We’re entering a discipline where our black and white patients’ life expectancies differ by five years. Where blacks have the highest rates of cancer, but the lowest rates of clinical trial enrollment. Where six percent of our colleagues are black. Where 70% of the applicants for NIH funding are white, and 1.4% are black. If we want to take action—to not just “raise awareness” of problems, but solve them—the social agenda practically writes itself.
As medical students, we chose this profession to help others—to make a difference. So let’s challenge ourselves to go beyond the “social activism” of fighting a disease by wearing pink, pouring ice water on ourselves, or sprawling out on a sidewalk. Let’s challenge ourselves to identify matters of race and social inequality within our communities, in our medical institutions, and at the bedside of each patient we meet. Let’s challenge ourselves to not simply “raise awareness” of the issues that are already trending in the media, but to take real, directly measurable actions to make these social inequalities artifacts of history.