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Monday, April 12, 2021

Controversy sheds light on systemic racism in medical school

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Dr. Blessing Ogbemudia graduated from Indiana University’s medical school in May. As he was celebrating with a few friends, he received an anonymous messageon Instagram. It contained an audio clip of someone talking about him. 

“Essentially it was saying that, oh you know  Blessing thinks you know he’s all that, he just got into medical school because he was Black … And you know why he was called Blessing right? Oh because his mother was a crack addict.”  

Ogbemudia was shocked … and confused. And he recognized the voice as a white student at the med school. 

“Especially white individuals discrediting Black individuals for their success and attributing it to their blackness, these are things that I’ve heard before. But to hear them in the recording, that kind of pierced my soul.”

He contacted a dean at the school … only to find out that they were already aware of the audio clip. That — and the fact he hadn’t been alerted by school officials — made the situation even more heart-breaking for him.

“They’ve had the audio for probably over a year.”

In May, he and eight other students sent university officials a letter. It called for a zero tolerance policy for racist statements. They also said such incidents required an immediate suspension or expulsion.

Medical school dean Dr. Jay Hess responded that the audio clip was “reprehensible.” But he said any discipline related to the incident is confidential. He added that the school was taking other steps … such as training on bias and reviewing the curriculum.

But some are calling for the school to move quicker. 

“Justice delayed is justice denied and I’m so tired of the delay  it’s just like let’s move.”

That’s Dr. Victoria Thomas. She did a residency in internal medicine at the school … but she didn’t see many doctors who looked like her. And she didn’t feel like she truly belonged.

“And it’s almost as if like, getting us here to check a box is enough. But it’s not about making sure we feel warm and welcoming”

Dr. Arielle Russell is one of the people who signed the letter to university leaders. She’s a recent grad of Indiana’s med school and is doing a residency in anesthesiology there. She’d like to see changes in how medical students are taught.

“I know that biases play a huge role in how physicians see their patients. A lot of that behavior starts in med school with how they even teach us.” 

Russell says teachers use a lot of patient case studies with stereotypes. And that perpetuates biases that students eventually will take with them into their practice.

“Fred is a 47-year-old African American living in Chicago who has type 2 diabetes, is obese, has hypertension. Just stuff like by the description you can tell what they were going off of.”

Ogbemudia sees other challenges, too.  

He says his white peers do not have to dress well when studying on campus late at night …out of fear of being questioned. And they don’t have to worry about patients not taking them seriously … because of the color of their skin.

“There’s a lot of things that we face that again our counterparts don’t really have to wake up every day and be fearful of these things.”

One step in IU’s improvement plan is creating the position of Chief Diversity Officer. Former pediatrics and dermatology professor Dr. Pat Treadwell was appointed in June and is talking to students about how the school can do better.

“I was appointed to be a person that students, residents and faculty could come to with concerns about diversity and that I would bring those directly to the dean.”

Treadwell’s plans include updating the curriculum to have more emphasis on diversity and health equity. She’s also looking to improve diversity and inclusion within the school. 

She says the administration hopes to move as quickly as possible while ensuring goals are well thought out … and sustainable.

 “I think that improving the climate, I think that  is probably a big concern. We won’t be perfect in probably within a year, but I hope that things are improved in just a few months.”

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health. 

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