Stephenson’s words were like music to my ears. As a Black woman born in Compton, Calif., and raised by a single parent, community means everything to me. My community propelled me to achieve and inspired my decision to become a physician. My mission was to heal my community and advocate for the health and livelihood of its members.
Today, I am a medical student and my mission remains the same, but it seems that every day the work necessary to heal my community grows more expansive. I’ve been disheartened by the disproportionate impact the great exacerbator, COVID-19, has had on Black communities, amplifying America’s most deadly chronic disease: racism. And equally frustrated by the brutal killings of Black people by police — Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, among others.
In response to this devastating reality, academic medical institutions across the nation have expressed their new commitment to antiracism. While these statements are steps in the right direction, it is important to recognize that these words carry little weight if they’re not coupled with actionable steps that prioritize the healing of Black communities.
If academic medicine — which encompasses not just medical schools but also the teaching hospitals where students train — seeks to “get proximal” to our communities, as Stevenson advises, we are in great need of an ideological shift. We need to prioritize praxis — the translation of social justice theory into action — as much as publications.
Though some institutions have made social justice central to their mission, research publications and grants continue to be the most valuable form of currency in academic medicine. This means the number of publications that aspiring doctors produce is a major factor in their admission to medical school, their competitiveness for residency programs, and their opportunities for career advancement and promotion.
This paradigm can be problematic, however, when not everyone’s research is valued the same. A 2019 study found that white researchers were nearly twice as likely to have their research funded by National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 grants — among the best-funded NIH awards and a key to academic promotion — compared to Black researchers. The choice of topic was a big reason: White researchers’ proposals primarily focused on microscopic-level science while those of Black researchers focused on population and community health.
These statistics should be a wake-up call for academic medicine. We must ask ourselves why our institutions have traditionally valued the pipette more than praxis. Why is research promoting health equity seen as “soft” compared to “hard” science like benchwork? Research of all types — experimental, epidemiological, and clinical — are imperative for the development of best practices and novel treatments that promote the healing of our patients. But we must also consider how our institutions can do a…