Editor-in-Chief of Top Medical Journal Steps Down Over Podcast That Downplayed Racism

Editor-in-Chief of Top Medical Journal Steps Down Over Podcast That Downplayed Racism
A junior doctor holds his stethoscope during a patient visit at the Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital in East Lancashire, England. (Photo: Hannah McKay, Getty Images)

Howard Bauchner, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association — one of the foremost publishers in the scientific world — is stepping down at the end of the month, following recent controversy over how the journal and one of its editors dismissed the issue of racism in medicine.

In late February 2021, JAMA released a podcast by two of the journal’s editors, Ed Livingston and Mitchell Katz, that was ostensibly meant to discuss structural racism in the medical profession. Both are white and neither appeared to have any relevant academic experience in discussing the issue. At times, Livingston seemed to question whether the concept of structural racism truly existed while taking pains to ensure readers that he himself was not racist. He also wondered if the problem could be described differently because “the term racism invokes feelings amongst people.”

Many experts, of course, do agree that racism continues to play an insidious role in helping drive worse health care outcomes among communities of colour. Even during the covid-19 pandemic, for instance, death rates have been disproportionately higher for Black, Latinx, and Native Americans, while some groups have also relatively struggled in gaining access to the several covid-19 vaccines now available.

Soon after the podcast was released, the journal’s Twitter account promoted the podcast by asking: “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in health care?” The widely mocked tweet was eventually deleted, as was the podcast, but not before JAMA was subjected to plenty of criticism by outside doctors. In mid-March, Livingston resigned from his deputy editor position; soon after, the American Medical Association announced it would be placing Bauchner on administrative leave while it conducted an investigation into the matter. And now, Bauchner is leaving as a result.

“I remain profoundly disappointed in myself for the lapses that led to the publishing of the tweet and podcast. Although I did not write or even see the tweet, or create the podcast, as editor-in-chief, I am ultimately responsible for them,” said Bauchner in a statement by the AMA.

For now, JAMA Executive Editor Phil Fontanarosa will serve as interim editor-in-chief. But it’s not known whether any further action will be taken by the journal as a result of the AMA’s investigation into the podcast. The AMA has so far not responded to a request for comment.

In the wake of the fallout, many doctors have called for a more sweeping discussion of the racial barriers that can harm patients and doctors alike, one that isn’t limited to tearing down a single podcast or journal.

Earlier this March, the Institute for Antiracism in Medicine — an organisation dedicated “to the abolition of racism in the field of medicine” founded this year by black women doctors in Chicago — circulated a petition asking JAMA to address the issues raised by the podcast through a review and restructuring, which has so far received more than 9,000 signatures. Brandi Jackson, a doctor and one of the founders of the institute, told Gizmodo in an email that Bauchner stepping down was the right thing to do. But she wanted to see the full results of the JAMA investigation before declaring victory. And in the meantime, she emphasised the need for the medical profession and institutions like JAMA to account for the racism in their past and present.

“We must remember that no one person, no matter how powerful, can uphold an entire system of oppression on their own,” Jackson said. “We must hold our feet down hard on the pedal of accountability for JAMA … We must not let up until the entire field of medicine answers for the racism embedded in its practices.”