Med Students, Doctor Groups React to SCOTUS Affirmative Action Ban

Steph Weber

June 30, 2023

The US Supreme Court ruled Thursday that using race as a factor in college admissions is unconstitutional, rolling back more than 40 years of affirmative action standards and changing how medical schools evaluate applicants to attract students from diverse backgrounds.  

Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH, president of the American Medical Association (AMA), said in a prepared statement that the Supreme Court ruling will result in a less diverse physician workforce, which is "bad for health care, bad for medicine, and undermines the health of our nation." He cited the AMA's recent adoption of a policy advising medical schools to increase enrollment of people from racial and ethnic groups traditionally underrepresented in medicine — even if that means considering race as a factor in admissions criteria.

"Supporting racial and ethnic diversity in the health professions — spanning classrooms, labs, and clinical settings — enriches the educational experiences of all medical and health professions students and the teaching experiences of faculty, and it is essential to improving the overall health of our nation," the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) said in a prepared statement. The AAMC said it was “deeply disappointed" in the court's decision and will continue to pursue efforts to improve diversity among medical students and physicians.

The American Medical Student Association also denounced the Supreme Court decision. “As future physicians committed to justice and equality, we are profoundly outraged…We strongly support increased representation of minority students in all levels of education, including colleges and medical schools.  By fostering diversity and inclusion, institutions have the power to create more empathetic and inclusive learning environments," the organization said in a press release.

"Diversity in the health care workforce not only benefits underserved patients but improves care for all patients" by increasing understanding and empathy for people of various cultures, Omar T. Atiq, MD, president of the American College of Physicians, said in a press release.

The Supreme Court ruling stems from a lawsuit by the Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The lawsuit alleges that considering race in the college admission process constitutes discrimination and violates the Equal Protection Clause.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who delivered the court's decision, stated that an applicant's personal experiences should carry the most weight in admission decisions and that historically, universities have "wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual's identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice."

Still, Roberts said the opinion does not prohibit universities from considering how race has affected an applicant's life, "be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise."

Diversity in medical schools increased last year, with more Black, Hispanic, and female students applying and enrolling. But continued diversity efforts were expected to prove challenging with affirmative action off the table, according to an amicus brief filed last year by the AMA, the AAMC, and dozens of other professional healthcare organizations.

The brief supported continued use of race in college admissions, stating that eliminating that factor could slow efforts to achieve greater health equity because fewer doctors would be training and working with colleagues from diverse backgrounds.

Several universities with medical programs, such as Yale and Johns Hopkins universities, filed a separate brief citing similar concerns. After yesterday's decision, Harvard and the University of North Carolina released statements stating they would comply with the ruling.

Steph Weber is a Midwest-based freelance journalist specializing in healthcare and law.

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