Why Medicine Needs More Representation

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The way we talk about race is shifting.

We’re seeing this shift on our screens, in our parliaments and in our workplaces. And one place we really need to see it shift is in the medical field, and in the research that underpins the health of millions of people.

The Historical Issues With Racism In Medicine

Science and medicine aren’t objective institutions of information that are immune to racial biases. Racism actually played a pretty big role in the history of medicine, where ideas about racial differences often had ‘scientific’ support.

This article looked at the way “race-based” medicine has been taught before. Specifically, it looked at the way race has been discussed in medicine and why, but also how that can end up being harmful.

It’s kind of used as a ‘shortcut’ that skips the important parts that can lead to perpetuating harmful stereotypes. And considering this is in the field of medicine, which is literally life and death, that’s pretty dangerous.

Last year, these illustrations by a Nigerian medical student Chidiebere Ibe went viral. People pointed out that they had never seen black skin in general medical illustrations before, which made a really clear point about this lack of representation in medical education. A similar conversation is being had around recognising symptoms on different skin tones.

Medical students have pointed out that race or ethnicity is only really mentioned in relation to specific health issues. Besides that, it’s not really seen or represented in general learning material. But being able to see different skin tones in all parts of medical education is important to avoid associating one skin tone as a ‘standard’.

The main issue is this “imprecise use of race, a social construct, as a proxy for pathology in medical education”, and how it perpetuates institutionalised racism.

And this is a huge part of the conversation here in Australia when considering issues with Indigenous health.

Indigenous Health In Australia

Some community health experts have pointed out the need to address racism within the Australian health system. Language around phrases like “natural causes”, or statistical studies of “failing health” shift the blame onto ill patients as inevitable or because of their race. And it ignores the racism that brought it about in the first place.

In other words, when it comes to inequities in health, we need to see how it is. That means recognising the racial injustices that led to that point. 

What We Can Do

There’s a lot of other important things we can do as well.

Some recommendations include making new health policies, proper funding, and making sure to point out institutional racism in research.

Representation in medicine is also a huge one since that can allow for more perspectives.

We need to critically look at the way that race is or isn’t discussed in medicine, or any field really – it’s something we just need to keep doing.