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Medical journals come under increasing criticism for lack of attention to racism

Following controversial comments from the top editor of JAMA, criticism is growing for medical journals to address their lack of attention to structural racism and how it impacts health (Source: “Medical Journals Blind to Racism as Health Crisis, Critics Say,” New York Times, June 2).

The top editor of JAMA, the influential medical journal, stepped down earlier this month amid controversy over comments about racism made by a colleague on a journal podcast. But critics saw in the incident something more pernicious than a single misstep: Blindness to structural racism and the ways in which discrimination became embedded in medicine over generations.

“The biomedical literature just has not embraced racism as more than a topic of conversation, and hasn’t seen it as a construct that should help guide analytic work,” said Dr. Mary Bassett, professor of the practice of health and human rights at Harvard University. “But it’s not just JAMA — it’s all of them.”

Following an outcry over the incident, editors at JAMA on Thursday released a plan to improve diversity among its staff, as well as in research published by the journal.

The longstanding issue has gained renewed attention in part because of health care inequities laid bare by the pandemic, as well as the Black Lives Matter protests of the past year. Indeed, an informal New York Times review of five top medical journals found that all published more articles on race and structural racism last year than in previous years.

It was only in 2013 that racism was first introduced as a searchable keyword in PubMed, the government’s vast medical library. Since then, however, the five journals have published many more studies mentioning race than those mentioning racism. JAMA published the fewest studies mentioning racism, the review found.

The New England Journal of Medicine rarely addressed racism until the arrival of Dr. Eric Rubin, its current top editor, in 2019. The British Medical Journal and The Lancet, both based in Europe, published more studies on the topic, while the American Journal of Public Health published the most.