Race and Medicine

Turning awareness into action can be a heavy lift, especially when the topic is weighty. This spring the UCSF Office of Population Health and Health Equity took on the challenge of looking at how we use racial categories in medicine by hosting a five-session event series, Racism and Race: The Use of Race in Medicine and Implications for Health Equity. It was an opportunity for educators, clinicians, and researchers from all UC academic medical institutions to wrestle with the philosophical, “What does it mean to be anti-racist?” as well as the practical, “Why are we asking patients their race?” “How do we use racial categories in how we do research?” and “What are we going to do moving forward?”

Series host and moderator, Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, UCSF Vice Dean for Population Health and Health Equity, along with distinguished speakers and panelists, engaged in discussions around the origins of the use of racial categories in medicine, the controversies surrounding their current use and practice, and future directions for clinical care, medical education, and research. Dr. Bibbins-Domingo is hopeful that the dialogues will inspire action to address the current disparity between words and deeds, noting, “Race is a social construct, and yet we use race in medicine all the time without fully coming to terms with its meaning in various contexts. We want to bring people together in a way that looks the history in the face and then takes it a step further. We need to ask what we are going to do differently tomorrow.”

It is a topic whose time has come. Dr. Bibbins-Domingo confirms, “Every academic medical campus is wrestling with this problem right now.” The series included participants from all UC academic medical institutions, including UC San Francisco, Los Angeles, Irvine, San Diego and Davis. The first session drew 1,500 attendees, and recordings on the UCSF School of Medicine YouTube channel have garnered more than 4,000 views. 

Sessions 1 – 3 focused on understanding the history of racial categories in medicine. Using case studies, speakers examined how we use categories in research, clinical care, and medical education, and how it is experienced in practice. In sessions 4 and 5, multi-disciplinary teams met to discuss what they would do differently, and compiled a series of action items.

Dr. Bibbins-Domingo is proud of UCSF’s role in organizing and initiating the conversations and hopes that this is just the beginning: “Academic institutions are supposed to be places where people can come together and share ideas, even if the ideas are difficult and don’t have easy solutions.” To that end, she and her team are in the process of compiling the written products for inclusion in a proceedings book, as well as some shorter academic articles.

For a list of event speakers and to access event recordings, visit the event series webpage, Racism and Race: The Use of Race in Medicine and Implications for Health Equity. Want to learn more? Explore the related library of readings.