Time for Action

HMS task force evaluating how to combat racism in MD program

Image of a white coated doctor's hands holding the hands of a black patient wearing a hospital Johnny. No faces.
Image: FG Trade/Getty Images

For Andrea Reid, the outpouring of interest in Harvard Medical School’s effort to combat racism has been affirming and heartening—scores of faculty and students have raised their hands to say, “I’m ready to help.”

Reid, MD ’88, was only about a month into her new job as associate dean for student and multicultural affairs last July when she agreed to become co-chair of a new HMS task force charged with addressing issues of racism within the HMS Program in Medical Education (PME).

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“This is a top-down license to look deeply,” Reid said. “There can be no sacred spaces when you're trying to eradicate racism. So, everything in the Program in Medical Education is on the table as we look to see where there's racism embedded in the structure, the norms, the teaching.”

The effort began last June, when HMS Dean for Medical Education Edward Hundert, MD ’84, commissioned the Task Force to Address Racism amid a torrent of national concern and unrest over the unwarranted killings of Black citizens in the United States.

“This is the time for concerted action,” Hundert explained. “We must ask ourselves what actionable steps we can take, especially in the short and medium terms, to become an anti-racist institution at every level. If any good is to come from the horrors of this year, it has to be a deep and sustainable effort to address racism in all its guises, across every aspect of the MD program at HMS.”

Created at a meeting of the School’s Education Policy and Curriculum Committee (EPCC), the task force has a broad remit. It was asked to review functions and programs across PME, including the learning environment, curriculum, faculty and staff development, admissions, and student affairs and assessment, with a goal of promoting anti-racism.

“I have been inspired by the way the entire community has embraced this ambitious but absolutely achievable goal,” Hundert added.

Reid, who also serves as director of the HMS Office of Recruitment and Multicultural Affairs, is co-chair of the task force with HMS Dean for Students Fidencio Saldaña.

“The work of the task force will be a catalyst for PME to create a more anti-racist environment for our students and staff,” Saldaña said. “This will not only foster a more optimal learning environment for our students, but it will lead to improved care for our patients. It is truly exciting to be working with such a passionate group of students, faculty and staff on this important endeavor.”

Agents for change

One of the group’s first tasks was to recruit a broad cross section of students and faculty from the Quad and HMS-affiliated hospitals to participate in task force subcommittees.

“We wanted individuals who teach students on the wards, as well as those who teach them in the classroom, those who are very involved with the clerkships, and those who might be a little more removed from the process,” Reid said. “We wanted people who had served in these capacities before and others who would bring a fresh lens to the conversation.”

Reid was elated when more than 125 faculty and 25 students volunteered to work on task force subcommittees.

“You've got this unbelievable group of individuals who want to work on something that really takes a deep dive into what happens in the classroom and in the clinical spaces, with a task to make this institution anti-racist,” Reid said. “We're asking the subcommittees to be bold and to be forthright with what needs to change based on the data that they've been able to collect and the collective thinking of the group.”

The task force is currently carrying out its in-depth, internal scan of PME, identifying areas where racism may be embedded with a goal of providing concrete recommendations and action plans to eradicate it.

Andrea Reid photo
Andrea Reid

The group is identifying areas where anti-racism education for students, faculty and staff can be incorporated throughout the program, and they are developing an ongoing monitoring process and reporting structure to address racist actions that may occur in the context of PME and associated learning environments.

“We will know we were successful if, when the EPCC gets these recommendations, there are resources, dashboards, feedback loops and outcome measurements targeting racism that are embedded in the structure of the school,” said Reid.

While the task force aims to present recommendations to the EPCC by the end of February 2021, efforts to combat racism in HMS medical education programs have already been taking place, Reid said.

Faculty teaching in preclinical courses have already begun to be trained on microaggressions. In admissions, those involved in interviewing and screening applicants have had training on implicit bias, anti-racism and microaggressions. The assessments group has been examining where race and racism might be embedded into the School’s assessment framework.

The work of the task force will expand and evolve over time, and its members are committed to taking a systematic approach to creating real change, said Reid.

“It’s the first time it’s been done in this way in this institution,” she said.

But all involved also recognize that HMS, with its network of teaching hospital partnerships, presents unique institutional challenges.

“For Harvard Medical School, where we have all these affiliates, each of the affiliates is doing their own thing, and we want to make sure that we’re aligned. That’s why it's important to have those individuals from the affiliates as part of the task force, even if they rarely set foot on the HMS campus.”

Reid said she’s gratified there has been so much support for the task force’s work because, in the end, PME wants to ensure that all HMS students have the best educational experience possible. They will be the School’s agents of change in the future.

“The times necessitate a bold approach,” said Reid. “The only way for [students] to be competent doctors in this day and age is that we have a really clear understanding of the impact of race and racism on medical education, and on the care and outcomes for individuals who live in this society.”