Harvard Medical School students decry lack of diversity

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Students in white coats marched through Harvard Yard last week to call attention to a lack of diversity at Harvard Medical School, as the Black Lives Matter movement rolls into the next storied Harvard institution.

Three dozen Harvard medical and dental students in a newly formed Racial Justice Coalition delivered a petition to the office of President Drew Gilpin Faust, who is leading a search to replace the outgoing medical school dean, Dr. Jeffrey Flier. The petition, signed by over 300 students, calls on Faust to choose a dean who will address the lack of diversity among staff and students, and who has shown commitment to racial equality in health care.

The action took place as nationwide protests about racial inequality ripple through university campuses and medical schools. Late last year, as race-related protests rocked Yale and the University of Missouri, students at Harvard Law School confronted their dean about the treatment of minorities. And Harvard has agreed to retitle the “masters” of its undergraduate residential houses, as well as its medical school societies, because of the connotation of slavery.

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Harvard Med’s Racial Justice Coalition was inspired by a national student group called White Coats for Black Lives, part of the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted from national outrage over police brutality. The White Coats group coalesced in December 2014, coordinating a 2,000-person “die-in” at over 70 medical schools that was aimed at framing “police violence as a public health issue, and institutionalized racism as a problem in medicine,” said organizer Dorothy Charles, a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania.

So far, students from White Coats for Black Lives have claimed some small victories: They have spurred the University of California, San Francisco, to expand bias training for incoming students, for instance, and helped shape an anti-racism initiative at Mount Sinai’s medical school. Last December, students at over 20 medical schools, including Harvard Med, pressed their schools to commit to admitting more minorities and ensuring people of color who live near teaching hospitals aren’t turned away because they can’t afford the care.

Harvard Med has come a long way since it admitted its first three black students in 1850. While many students at the time supported the move, a vocal minority threatened to quit if they had to share lecture halls with blacks. The dean, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, kicked the black students out, saying the “experiment” had proved to the faculty “that the intermixing of the white and black races in their lecture rooms, is distasteful to a large portion of the class and injurious to the interests of the school.” Harvard Med did not graduate a black doctor until 1869.

Natalia Bronshtein/STAT

Since then, Harvard has improved its track record: It graduated 574 black physicians from 1980 to 2012, the eighth highest number in the nation, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. But blacks remain far outnumbered in medicine — they comprise 13 percent of the US population but just 4 percent of the physician workforce — and Harvard is no exception.

In their petition, students noted that just 5.9 percent of Harvard Med’s 9,453 full-time faculty are black, Hispanic, or American Indian, while those groups make up 32 percent of the US population. Little progress has been made since 1980. Meanwhile, the share of Asians and Pacific Islanders, who are not considered “underrepresented” by the AAMC, has shot up from 4.4 percent to 18.9 percent in that time period, according to Harvard Med.

Dina Rudick/The Boston GlobeEdirin Sido, a Harvard dental school student, holds the petition signed by more than 300 Harvard medical and dental students.

Harvard’s case mirrors the nation: 5.3 percent of US medical school faculty are underrepresented minorities, a figure that has changed very little over the past decade, said Marc Nivet, chief diversity officer at the AAMC.

Nivet said historically, “the rationale to diversify medicine has been to get [minority] medical students to go back to their community and work in primary care.” That’s important, Nivet said, but it has had an unintended consequence: Few minority doctors become faculty members at medical schools.

Another problem, Nivet said, is that the pool of medical students is diversifying too slowly. The number of black medical school graduates in the United States rose by just 3.9 percent from 2002 to 2011.

Harvard Med’s student body is much more diverse than its faculty: 21.7 percent of students are black, Hispanic, or American Indian. But just 11 of the 165 first-year students are African American, and students say the school has a long way to go.

Edirin Sido, a first-year Harvard dental student of Nigerian and Cuban descent, is training at Harvard Medical School as part of her dental education. She said she has noticed a lack of diversity in the doctors who train students in clinical settings as preceptors. When there aren’t many minority faculty, she said, they experience what’s known as a “minority tax” — they get pulled into lots of extra committees and other duties in which an institution is seeking diversity.

“The only way to address that is to have more minorities in the profession,” she said.

Danial Ceasar, an African-American Harvard Med student from Compton, Calif., said he has had just one black teacher in his five months at the school. He has noticed something missing in the curriculum, too.

Sitting in infectious disease class, he saw slide after slide of rashes, and noticed that “there were some days where we would just see white skin.” He said the lessons left him poorly equipped to work with dark-skinned patients.

“I look forward to going back to [treat] communities that are full of black people. I will need those pieces of my education,” he said. Ceasar said Harvard Med has been very responsive to student feedback, however.

The petition that Ceasar and others signed urges Faust to make sure at least 25 percent of interviewed candidates for the dean job come from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine.

Faust, who wasn’t available to receive the petition in person and declined comment to STAT, told the Harvard Crimson she’s skeptical of the quota the students proposed.

“I think that the point that the person who leads the med school ought to be a person with a deep commitment to diversity is absolutely right,” Faust said. “How we accomplish that I don’t think comes through quotas on interviews.”

Harvard provost Alan Garber, who is leading the dean search with Faust, said in a statement that he had met with student organizers and shared their petition with faculty on the dean search committee.

Meanwhile, students received support from one Harvard Med professor, Dr. Augustus A. White III, a longtime champion of diversity who in 1978 became the first black department chief at a Harvard teaching hospital.

“I would sign it in a heartbeat,” he said of the students’ petition.

White wrote a book, “Seeing Patients: Unconscious Bias in Health Care,” outlining how a prejudiced health care system fails minorities. For example, if you’re a Latino man in Southern California with a long bone broken into two parts — a problem that’s easy to diagnose, very painful, and hard to fake — you have 50 percent less chance of getting narcotics to control your pain than a white patient, White said.

“If we had more diversity, we’d have less disparate care,” he said.

White said he would like to see “a greater sense of urgency and outrage” over what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the shocking and inhumane” injustices in health care.

“Diversity is not a panacea,” White said, “but certainly an important element in helping to address that unconscionable reality.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the Harvard school that dental student Edirin Sido attends.

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