Medical students from over 70 U.S. schools have organized a die-in on Wednesday in support of the nationwide protests condemning a grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Participants say the same structural racism that results in police brutality against blacks manifests itself in the health care system, leading to poorer health, shorter life expectancies and inferior medical care for black Americans.
“The main purpose of the demonstration for us as medical students is to demonstrate our commitment to acknowledging and addressing systematic racism not only in the context of the criminal justice system but particularly in the context of health care,” said Jamie Lim, a first year medical student at Boston University’s School of Medicine (BUSM).
BUSM has a long history of working for equal opportunities in the medical field, Lim said, which is one reason so many B.U. students have taken structural racism to heart. The school graduated the first African-American female medical doctor, as well as the first Native American M.D. in the United States, he said.
BUSM students planned a short program Wednesday before the die-in — with protesters lying on the ground as if dead — with speakers from the Student National Medical Association lecturing on the needs of black medical students across the country. Afterward, participants will go to the main lobby of the medical school and lie down on the ground for four and a half minutes — symbolic of the four and a half hours Brown’s body was left on a Ferguson street after he was killed on Aug. 9.
Most of the medical schools participating in the protest have planned the die-in for 3 p.m. Eastern time, Lim said, with schools like B.U., Harvard, Yale, Duke and Emory taking part.
Dorothy Charles, a first-year medical student at University of Pennsylvania who helped coordinate the nationwide protest, said she hopes the die-in will begin a dialogue within the medical profession about the ways medical students and health care professionals may be unconsciously perpetuating racial injustice.
“These incidents are fueled by something more than police aggression — systematic racism permeates all of society, and you can definitely find it in medicine,” Charles said.
One 2012 study found that two-thirds of primary care doctors were biased against black patients. According to the study, doctors spent less time with African-American patients than with white patients, and were also less likely to include black patients in medical decisions.
That racism causes blacks to feel unwelcome in the medical system and contributes to them avoiding going to the doctor at all, a separate 2008 report showed. Charles cited research that showed emergency room doctors were also less likely to prescribe narcotics to black patients suffering from fractures than white patients.
Racism is experienced by an overwhelming majority of black youth, survey results show. And scientists describe this racism as a “toxic stressor” that accumulates over the years and contributes to health disparities and results in early aging.
“We want this to start a conversation and hopefully those conversations will lead to self-examination and start creating change,” said Charles. “We understand that these die-ins are not going to solve things … but society at large needs to have a discussion about race and racism, and this will be a long process and something that we’ll wrestle with for a while.”