JAMA Editor Placed on Leave Following Racial Controversy

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Following controversial comments on racism in medicine made by a deputy editor at JAMA, the editor in chief of the prominent medical journal was placed on administrative leave on Thursday.

A committee of the American Medical Association, which oversees the journal, said Dr. Howard Bauchner would be replaced by an interim editor pending results of an independent investigation. The decision was announced on Thursday in an email to employees.

JAMA is one of the world’s leading medical journals, publishing research that shapes the scientific agenda and public policy around the globe. The controversy began when Dr. Ed Livingston, a deputy editor, said on a Feb. 24 podcast that structural racism no longer existed in the United States.

“Structural racism is an unfortunate term,” said Dr. Livingston, who is white. “Personally, I think taking racism out of the conversation will help. Many people like myself are offended by the implication that we are somehow racist.”

The podcast was promoted with a tweet from the journal that said, “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in health care?” The response to both was swift and angry, prompting the journal to take down the podcast and delete the tweet.

A week later, Dr. Bauchner addressed the controversy. “Comments made in the podcast were inaccurate, offensive, hurtful, and inconsistent with the standards of JAMA,” Dr. Bauchner said in a statement. “We are instituting changes that will address and prevent such failures from happening again.”

Dr. Livingston later resigned. On Thursday night, officials at JAMA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Many in the medical community said that the journal had not gone far enough and that the events offered an opportunity to make more systemic changes. In an email sent to leaders of the A.M.A., a group of doctors called for “a careful investigation of the JAMA editorial staff and board, up to and including the removal of Dr. Howard Bauchner.”

The authors also initiated a petition, now signed by nearly 7,000 people, asking the journal to hold Dr. Bauchner accountable and to review and restructure the editorial process.

“It’s not just that this podcast is problematic — it’s that there is a long and documented history of institutional racism at JAMA,” said Dr. Brittani James, a Black physician who practices on the South Side of Chicago and who helped begin the petition.

“That podcast should never have happened,” said Dr. Uché Blackstock, an emergency physician in New York. “That tweet should never have happened. The fact that podcast was conceived of, recorded and posted was unconscionable.”

“I think it caused an incalculable amount of pain and trauma to Black physicians and patients,” she said. “And I think it’s going to take a long time for the journal to heal that pain.”

Recently, other prominent journals have had to reckon with their roles in perpetuating racism in medicine. In January, Alan Weil, editor in chief of Health Affairs, acknowledged that the journal’s “staff and leadership are overwhelmingly white and economically privileged,” and he committed to reviewing its editorial process.

The A.M.A.’s email to employees promised that the investigation would probe “how the podcast and associated tweet were developed, reviewed, and ultimately published,” and said that the association had engaged independent investigators to ensure objectivity.

The email did not offer a date for conclusion of the investigation.