Commonly referred to as the “father of the AMA,” it was Davis who introduced a resolution to the New York Medical Association in 1845 that called for a national medical convention that eventually led to the establishment of the AMA in 1847.
Davis was also the first editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association and was elected president of the AMA twice.
In 1868, Davis actively blocked female and Black physicians from AMA membership when he argued that the decision for inclusion should be left to state and local medical societies. He contended the national group should not supersede the decisions made by those organizations, even if they explicitly discriminated against women and people of color.
Davis died in 1904, but his policy that resulted in the exclusion of Black physicians remained in place until the AMA was forced to racially integrate after civil rights legislation enacted in the 1960s made it illegal to discriminate based on gender or color.
Over the past decade, the AMA has taken some steps to come to grips with its past discriminatory policies. In 2008, the group publicly apologized for its past for the first time. That same year it released a study on racial disparities in organized medicine that concluded policies that excluded Blacks from attending medical schools, working in some hospitals, and joining medical associations had contributed to a dearth of Black physicians. Black individuals made up only 5% of all active physicians in 2018, according to the most recent figures from the Association of American Medical Colleges, despite accounting for 13% of the U.S. population.
The AMA House of Delegates in 2018 adopted policies to address health equity, which led to the creation of the AMA Center for Health Equity and the organization’s hiring of its first chief health equity officer in 2019.
In 2020, the AMA voted to commit to work toward eliminating racist policies and practices across all of healthcare. The organization has publicly called racism a “serious” threat to public health in light of protests across the country last year following the death of George Floyd and the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on communities of color.
The AMA’s past discriminatory practices and its effort now to address the impact of those actions are indicative of a broader conversation currently going on within healthcare about race. Such talks are prompting stakeholders to reassess how medicine is being taught, researched, delivered and managed in order to form a more equitable system that addresses long-held racial disparities in access and outcomes.
When asked why it took the AMA so long to finally disavow itself from Davis’ actions, Madara said the move was part of an ongoing series of actions the organization has taken to combat racism but acknowledged the events over the past year had shined an even brighter light on how past actions and policies had a lasting impact.
“It was linked to the past, it’s also linked to the current state and it’s linked to our commitment to not only seek truth and reconciliation but to move forward as well,” Madara said.