Police brutality against people of color persists as a public health concern because as a nation we have a crippled conscience. As a new doctor, I can’t help but feel that my medical education has failed to prepare me to address this crisis in the communities I hope to serve.
I’ve learned how to navigate around injustices, rather than fight them. We focus on helping our patients survive the trauma of our unjust society, rather than asking ourselves how we can ensure that all our patients have the opportunity to thrive in an America free of legalized terror and intolerance.
That broader question has never been deemed central to my role as a healer.
I think it should be.
Last month, when Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy visited STAT, I asked him what more my generation of physicians could do to treat and prevent this public health crisis. He urged us to embrace the power of our voices and the power of the public trust. “[You need to] recognize, if there is systemic racism that’s harming your patients, that that’s our job to speak up about it,” he said.
It’s a premise the American Medical Association also promotes as a principle of the profession — an obligation to “advocate for social, economic, educational, and political changes that ameliorate suffering and contribute to human well-being.”
But that’s not how we’re taught.
As a medical student, I learned how to gather data on my patients through purposeful questions, physical examinations, and diagnostic tests to identify diseases and come up with treatment plans. I did not learn to ask my patients whether they feel safe in their neighborhoods. Or to discuss how bigotry undermines their physical and emotional health by limiting their access to clean water, lead-free homes, or timely relief efforts after natural disasters.
It seems we’re taught to seek answers that will have an impact on factors we can control. And we hide from answers that don’t.
For example, one study reported that sometimes doctors fail to screen patients for domestic violence due to “lack of training in knowing what to do when abuse is detected, or knowing what to do but believing it will not help.”
This self-imposed helplessness and hopelessness perpetuates the status quo and does a gross disservice to our patients. We struggle to reliably assess the health and well-being of our patients in their homes, and even more so in their communities.
Physicians cannot and must not hide from this national issue. Police brutality is simply a savage symptom of the institutional racism that harms people of color everywhere, from their homes to our hospitals.
By focusing on the doctor-patient relationship, we’ve become better at listening to marginalized patients, but unless we move on their behalf, these stories have fallen on deaf ears. Instead of only meeting the marginalized where they are, we should be asking how to fundamentally undo the marginalization.
Advocacy is not an optional or extracurricular aspect of medical education. It should course through the veins of our curriculum.
We need to get comfortable asking questions with painful answers. We need to make it our business to know and believe change is possible in order to work in service of those most vulnerable to abuses of power.
Police brutality from racial profiling and intimidation is a known cause of morbidity and mortality. We cannot acquiesce to these injustices as sad realities, but rather must look at them as factors we can control — and are professionally obligated to address. Our complacency cannot contribute to this shameful and preventable violence that has diseased our society for entirely too long.
While medical schools remain largely silent about the systemic racism that underscores police violence, many of my peers across the country are speaking up. As one step, they’ve organized around White Coats for Black Lives, a movement committed to dismantling systems imbued with racism in order to affirm that black lives matter and secure justice for all.
In the wake of recent shootings, the organization urges us as physicians to examine the “institutions in our society that threaten the well-being of Black people — from housing to education to mass incarceration.”
While I’ve shared in the national horror, and hashtagged and retweeted, I’ve done little to fulfill my role as an activist. Many other physicians have also watched from the sidelines. But that is beginning to change as more of us lean into the issue. By signing this letter of support, I’ve committed myself to this critical cause and pledged my energies to help forge a new and unchartered path forward.
I wish it hadn’t taken me so long, but I know it’s a start. And I know I’m not alone in speaking up for what is right and just.
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