Affirmative action is meant to promote opportunity for disadvantaged groups. Aligned with the goals of the Civil Rights movement, affirmative action policies were put in place to remedy a history of racial and sexual discrimination. Today, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin — a case that challenges the legal viability of affirmative action.
In 2008, Abigail Fisher was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin. She sued the school, claiming that she was rejected on the basis of race. Tomorrow, if the justices side with Fisher, racially-conscious admissions policies would become unconstitutional and end the legality of affirmative action. Such a decision could diminish the number of professional opportunities in medicine available to underrepresented minorities and undermine public health efforts to address healthcare disparities.
Recognizing the link between health care disparities and diversity in medical education, the members of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) seek to encourage more racial and ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, and Native Americans to consider careers in medicine, and recruit them into training programs.
In conjunction with eleven other health organizations, the AAMC submitted an amicus brief in support of upholding affirmative action. The brief states, “medical schools do not use the court’s approved holistic review framework as a substitute for merit based consideration of medical school applicants. Rather, it is a process through which medical schools are better able to appreciate the individual merits of each candidate to be a successful student, and ultimately, physician.”
That is to say, those accepted to medical school deserve it.
Medical schools have an obligation to train and graduate competent physicians that can meet the healthcare needs of this country. These needs are both social and scientific. As such, many medical institutions have adopted the practice of “holistic review,” which looks beyond academic performance and considers each student’s intellectual interests, racial or ethnic background, personal qualities and life experiences in the evaluation of suitability for medical training and practice.
A similar “holistic review” prevented Abigail Fischer from being admitted to the University of Texas at Austin– an opportunity that she may or may not have deserved. If affirmative action is overturned, however, this Supreme Court decision will counter educational efforts to diversify the physician workforce. Ending affirmative action would exacerbate disparity and deny many Americans the quality health care they definitely deserve.
Despite efforts to alleviate health disparities, the CDC acknowledges that inequities still persist. According to the CDC, “health disparities are preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations.”
In fact, Healthy People 2020 — a government initiative that provides science-based, 10-year national objectives for improving the health of all Americans — pledged to make health equity a reality, a goal it defines as the “attainment of the highest level of health for all people. But, achieving health equity requires valuing everyone equally with focused and ongoing societal efforts to address avoidable inequalities, historical and contemporary injustices, and the elimination of health and health care disparities.”
Affirmative action, especially when applied in the context of medical education is a means by which we can “address avoidable inequalities, historical and contemporary injustices.”
The AAMC cites a lack of role models as a major barrier to medical school admission for minority medical students. I have had a number of mentors and role models that have supported me and helped me realize my dream of attending medical school. I realize however, that my experience as a minority medical student is far from the norm.