ROCHESTER, Minn. — A longitudinal study of 3,756 U.S. medical students provides evidence that racism in medical schools influenced their decisions on whether to practice in minority or underserved communities.
"Structural racism is deeply embedded in all areas of society, and medical education is no exception," according to the study in the August issue of Academic Medicine.
To examine the effect of racism in medical school, researchers surveyed students at 49 unidentified U.S. medical schools in their first semester and again in their final semester.
"This study provides evidence that racism manifested at multiple levels in medical schools was associated with graduating students' decisions to provide care in high-need communities," the article concludes. "Strategies to identify and eliminate structural racism, and its manifestations in medical school are needed."
The publication is the latest of more than 30 articles to present findings from the Medical Student Cognitive Habits and Growth Evaluation Study (CHANGES), the first longitudinal survey study of the effects of medical education on students' biases and attitudes over time.
The national study is being conducted by Oregon Health & Science University in collaboration with Mayo Clinic's Research Group on Equity and Inclusion in Health Care, Yale University and the University of Minnesota.
To limit the scope, the study focused on attitudes toward African Americans, although CHANGES explored attitudes about other groups, as well, explains first author Sean Phelan, Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic health sciences researcher.
"I hope the study will spark change," Dr. Phelan says. "I would like to see more conversation about diversity and inclusion in curriculum and the need to make changes in medical training to minimize racism and bias."
The multidisciplinary team hypothesized that three factors might reflect bias in medical education, and the results indicate that all three predicted whether students changed their minds on wanting to work in an underserved area or in a primarily minority community:
The team found that racism at the structural or cultural level may reinforce a belief in social hierarchy and dissuade students from a career focused on caring for those perceived to be lower in that hierarchy. However, among students who initially intended to work with minority populations, those who witnessed examples of discrimination in medical school were more likely to stay committed to that path.
The researchers highlight intervention strategies:
"We've been following this cohort for a long time to understand how their experiences in medical education influence the predictors of potentially biased care," says Michelle van Ryn, Ph.D., the principal investigator. Dr. Van Ryn is the distinguished professor at Oregon Health & Science University's School of Nursing and former director of Mayo Clinic's Research Program on Equity and Inclusion in Health Care. "These findings suggest that medical education leaders can take action to affect students' decisions to work with underserved populations."
CHANGES began nearly 10 years ago. Additional surveys were conducted in the second and fourth years of residency. The final survey will be administered five years after medical school. To avoid influencing responses, the team delayed publication of findings until after students graduated from medical school.
The research was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
The authors report no conflicts of interest.
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