Teaching medical students to challenge ‘unscientific’ racial categories

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2016-03-11 22:58Z by Steven

Teaching medical students to challenge ‘unscientific’ racial categories

STAT: Reporting from the frontiers of health and medicine

Ike Swetlitz

Dr. Brooke Cunningham talks about race to medical students at the University of Minnesota.
Jenn Ackerman for Stat

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Medical students looking to score high on their board exams sometimes get a bit of uncomfortable advice: Embrace racial stereotypes.

“You see ‘African American,’ automatically just circle ‘sickle cell,’” said Nermine Abdelwahab, a first-year student at the University of Minnesota Medical School, recounting tips she’s heard from older classmates describing the “sad reality” of the tests.

Medical school curricula traditionally leave little room for nuanced discussions about the impact of race and racism on health, physicians and sociologists say. Instead, students learn to see race as a diagnostic shortcut, as lectures, textbooks, and scientific journal articles divide patients by racial categories, reinforcing the idea that race is biological. That mind-set can lead to misdiagnoses, such as treating sickle cell anemia as a largely “black” disease.

“Right now, students are learning an inaccurate and unscientific definition of race,” said Dorothy Roberts, a law and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who coauthored a recent paper in Science arguing for an end to the use of biological concepts of race in human genetics research.

“It’s simply not true that human beings are naturally divided into genetically distinct races,” Roberts said. “So it is not good medical practice to treat patients that way.”

Change is starting to come, but slowly…

……Cunningham also traced racial stereotypes through centuries of medical science, from an 1850s medical definition of drapetomania — “the disease causing Negroes to run away” — to the modern day, when a mainstream formula to measure kidney function and a common test of lung capacity differ for “whites” and “blacks.”

“I think it’s revolutionary to be teaching that way to first-year medical students,” said Dr. Helena Hansen, a professor with dual appointments in both New York University’s anthropology department and the medical school’s psychiatry department. She said Cunningham is one of a small but growing number of faculty members challenging the status quo.

Hansen said Cunningham’s lecture “fundamentally challenges” a central premise in clinical medicine: that racial categories are well-defined and universally applicable…

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