Race and the medical student

2 minute read

Ike Swetlitz in Stat has an article about the ways that some medical educators are trying to build a more anthropological knowledge of race and health in their students: “Teaching medical students to challenge ‘unscientific’ racial categories”. Unfortunately both the headline and article get a bit snarled in their use of language. Maybe that’s inevitable.

“You see ‘African American,’ automatically just circle ‘sickle cell,’” said Nermine Abdelwahab, a first-year student at the University of Minnesota Medical School, recounting tips she’s heard from older classmates describing the “sad reality” of the tests.
Medical school curricula traditionally leave little room for nuanced discussions about the impact of race and racism on health, physicians and sociologists say. Instead, students learn to see race as a diagnostic shortcut, as lectures, textbooks, and scientific journal articles divide patients by racial categories, reinforcing the idea that race is biological. That mind-set can lead to misdiagnoses, such as treating sickle cell anemia as a largely “black” disease.

In an episode of M*A*S*H from the early 1980s, Corporal Klinger starts suffering from a rare side effect of the anti-malarial drug primaquine. The doctors know that the drug has the potential of negative side effects in blacks, but issue it to everyone else. Hawkeye and the other doctors assume Klinger is just goldbricking. But another soldier, Private Goldman, starts to exhibit the same symptoms. The doctors determine that both Klinger and Goldman are suffering anemia, and take them off the primaquine. At the end of the program, it is revealed that people of Levantine origin (like Klinger) and Ashkenazi Jews (like Goldman) also may have the same susceptibility to primaquine side effects owing to their ancestry.

The side effect in question is a breakdown of blood cells and consequent anemia in people with G6PD deficiency, which is indeed very common in sub-Saharan and North Africans, and less common but still notable in people of broader Mediterranean descent.

I like the program quite a lot, and I remember it from the first time it was broadcast. It is a well-scripted way illustration of how a physician can make erroneous assumptions about ancestry and genetics that lead to bad treatment. But it also goes to show that there’s very little new in today’s attempts to improve medical school training with respect to race and medicine. These are all ideas that were well-known more than forty years ago and have been staples of anthropology.

Of course today we can know from anyone’s genotype data whether they have a susceptibility to some adverse drug reactions, and that includes many that do not have much higher frequencies in one population or another. Whatever there is to be said for genotyping, it beats census categories if you are looking to diagnose most common traits influenced by Mendelian genes. If we are training medical students for the world of five or ten years from now, allowing them to make effective use of this information should be the priority.