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Black US doctor is fired after complaint about talk on racism in medicine

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n116 (Published 13 January 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n116
  1. Jeanne Lenzer
  1. New York

A doctor has been fired from her “dream job” as a small group facilitator at a medical school in California after she shared personal and historical incidents of racism during a talk with students.

Aysha Khoury, a 42 year old internist, was hired in July 2019 by Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine in Pasadena, which opened in 2020, does not charge fees, and encourages applications from students from diverse backgrounds. She was particularly excited about the school’s focus on “achieving equity,” the “elimination of health disparities,” and the promotion of “inclusiveness and diversity,” she said.

Khoury was asked to facilitate a discussion about “legacies of power structures and institutionalised racism that result in gender bias and race bias in medicine today” for a class held in August 2020. She has said that she “decided to show up fully as a Black woman and physician,” wearing “a T shirt with the words ‘I can’t breathe,’ along with my usual African print attire.”1

She told the class that the lives of black people cannot be separated from what happens within the halls of medicine, and she asked the class to reflect on the many black people shot by police, as well as the long history of medical harms and abuses of black and indigenous people, such as the Tuskegee experiment into syphilis2 and research conducted on slaves.

She told The BMJ that she also discussed the pregnancy related deaths of “women who look like me.” She cited research showing that pregnancy related mortality in black women over 30 was four to five times as high as in white women3 and that black newborns were three times as likely to die if their doctor was white rather than black.4

Khoury said that the session was emotional and at times uncomfortable but that discomfort was a small price to pay “if eliminating health disparities and saving lives is the goal.”

Hours after the class ended, Maureen Connelly, the school’s senior associate dean for academic and community affairs, called Khoury to tell her that she was suspended from her teaching responsibilities. In a follow-up email on 1 September, Connelly told Khoury that “the removal from your faculty duties was prompted by a complaint about certain classroom activities that took place on Friday morning, August 28.”

Lack of answers

Khoury’s students and colleagues have protested at the school’s action. All eight medical students in her small discussion group sent a letter to Mark A Schuster, dean of the medical school, stating that they were “shocked and hurt” to learn of Khoury’s suspension. “We are profoundly grateful for Dr Khoury’s continued leadership, mentorship, and advocacy,” they wrote. “We want Dr Khoury back.”

Each student also wrote an individual letter describing their reasons for wanting Khoury reinstated, said one of the students who spoke to The BMJ on condition of anonymity, adding, “It’s really disorienting: months have gone by and we’ve struggled to get answers, but none have been forthcoming.”

A spokesperson for the school stated in an email to The BMJ that “Dr Khoury was not placed on leave for bringing content related to anti-racism to the classroom or for sharing her experiences as a Black woman in medicine.”

Michael Kanter, professor and chair of the department of clinical science at the medical school, wrote to Khoury in a letter dated 31 December, “In light of the multiple issues related to your job performance and conduct . . . your appointment will not be renewed.” However, 10 weeks before Khoury was suspended Kanter had written to her saying, “After careful review of your accomplishments, I have decided to request an increase in [your] academic rank to the Academic Appointments and Promotions Committee.”

One student, Isaiah Swann—a neuroscience major, who is black—withdrew his application to the school’s MD/PhD programme after seeing months go by without answers from the school. He told The BMJ, “I was really saddened to see that what they [were saying] was so apparently different from what they were doing.”

A spokesperson for the school told The BMJ by email that, owing to an “ongoing personnel and legal issue,” it could not comment on the reason for Khoury’s dismissal or the letter from her students. The spokesperson wrote that the school was “working with Dr Khoury’s lawyer to set up a facilitated discussion to find a mutually agreeable path forward for both Dr Khoury and [Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine]. Most importantly, we pledge to continue the hard, and sometimes complicated, work of addressing issues of race in medicine.”

References

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