Racial Bias in Flexner Report Permeates Medical Education Today

June 22, 2020 by Christen Aldrich

Filed under Engagement & Morale, For Career Seekers, For Employers, For the Workforce, Regulations

Last modified June 23, 2020

As written in this article by MedPage Today, the early 20th century report that laid the framework for the modern North American medical school is also partially responsible for the disproportionately low number of Black physicians in the workforce today.

In the early 1900’s, Abraham Flexner was tasked with traveling to all 155 medical schools in the U.S. and Canada to assess the state of medical education. His findings, published in 1910 in what is now known as the Flexner Report, provided criteria to standardize and improve medical schools, forcing closed many institutions that didn’t have the resources to implement more rigorous instruction. In his report, Flexner wrote that African-American physicians should be trained in “hygiene rather than surgery” and should primarily serve as “sanitarians,” whose purpose was “protecting whites” from common diseases like tuberculosis.

The schools that closed, including Flint in New Orleans, Leonard in Raleigh, and Knoxville in Memphis, were “wasting small sums annually and sending out undisciplined men, whose lack of real training is covered up by the imposing MD degree,” Flexner wrote.

Although some standardization of medical education was necessary, Flexner’s report gravely diminished the number of African Americans who could have become physicians, said Earl H. Harley, MD, of Georgetown University, who has written about the forgotten history of defunct Black medical schools.

“The opportunity to train to be a physician is still not where it should be,” Harley told MedPage Today. “More than 100 years later, we are still trying to make up for the deficit.”

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