How medical schools can transform curriculums to undo racial biases

Penn Medicine researchers find that lectures and assessments misuse race, playing a role in perpetuating physician bias.

Medical school curriculums may misuse race and play a role in perpetuating physician bias, a team led by Penn Medicine researchers found in an analysis of curriculum from the preclinical phase of medical education.

Medical students writing at a desk, one wearing a face mask.

In a perspective piece published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers identified five key categories in which curriculum misrepresented race in class discussions, presentations, and assessments. The authors recommend that rather than oversimplifying conversations about how race affects diseases’ prevalence, diagnosis, and treatment, medical school faculty must widen the lens to “impart an adequate and accurate understanding of the complexity of these relationships.”

“In medical school, 20 years ago, we often learned that higher rates of hypertension in certain racial and ethnic groups, was due to genetic predisposition, personal behaviors, or unfortunate circumstances. Now we know this is not true. There are no characteristics innate to racial and ethnic groups, biological or otherwise, that adequately explains these differences. They stem, instead, from differential experiences in our society—it’s structural racism, not race,” says the study’s senior author Jaya Aysola, assistant dean of Inclusion and Diversity in the Perelman School of Medicine and executive director at the Penn Medicine Center for Health Equity Advancement. “When we speak of dismantling structural racism, we must begin with medical education, where these sorts of race-based biases are still being reinforced in the classroom.”

Though the researchers focused on lectures from a single medical school, the study authors from other institutions found similar misrepresentations of race in their preclinical medical curriculums. The five categories of biases that the research team identified were: semantics, prevalence of disparities without context, race-based diagnostic bias, pathologizing race, and race-based clinical guidelines.

This story is by Lauren Ingeno. Read more at Penn Medicine News.