How SA doctors can fight racism

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  • Medical lecturers need to create safe environments to discuss race issues
  • Race should be taught as a social construct to deal with its impact in the medical field
  • SA needs health professionals who advocate against injustice for better healthcare outcomes 


South Africa and many other countries have a history of racial division and racism. Studies have shown that the social impact of racism has also affected the medical fraternity in South Africa. A 2016 study revealed that Black registrars during their training in the Western Cape’s academic hospitals experienced racism.

To combat racism in the medical field, a study published by Association Academic Medicine came up with solutions to help health professionals address racism as students, and thereby become doctors who are not racially biased.

Create a psychologically safe learning space

Lectures should create an emotionally safe space for learners, and also create an environment which "humanises" students – with the goal of transitioning them from “clinicians” back to “people”, in order to also view patients as people. “Professionalisation helps build ethical, responsible behaviour in trainees, but 'overmedicalisation' can strip trainees of some of their own humanity and their natural reflex to see patients as people, a particular risk when caring for patients from different backgrounds.”

Avoid traumatising participants

The journal advises lecturers to discuss race and racism without traumatising students. Traumatising conversations may cause medical students to disengage. 

First talk about race as a social construct 

According to the study, medical students need to know the social meaning of race and the impact it has on society.

“By demonstrating that the definition of race itself has varied by time and by place, it helps students to understand that race is primarily a social construct created for sociopolitical purposes and can empower them to think more boldly about how to address social inequities created by racism.”

Explain that race/racism is part of a larger framework 

It is important for health professions students to understand that race is but one of many social identities, and that every identity can be marginalised.

“It is also important for students to understand the term 'intersectionality', that is how living at the intersection of multiple marginalised identities (e.g. race, sexual orientation, class) can magnify the detrimental impact on one’s mental and physical health.”

Intersectionality also highlights the structural factors such as structural racism or structural heterosexism that intersect to harm persons with multiple marginalised identities like black transgender people.

Teach students about solutions and how to be leaders and advocates

Lecturers should invoke a spirit of advocacy in students standing up against injustice in the health profession.

“Our experience has been that students’ passion for tackling racism and health disparities can be extinguished if the curriculum does not also cover interventions and how they can be advocates for their patients. Solutions for reducing health disparities and advancing health equity go beyond cultural humility training.”

Having health professionals that are advocates against racism creates better healthcare outcomes, especially when health professionals are placed in marginalised communities.

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