Racism and Race in Medicine: An Evening with Dr. Mary Bassett

At a TEDMED talk in 2015, Dr. Mary T. Bassett said, “sounding the alarm about the impact of racism on health in the United States…is central to doing my job right as New York City’s Health Commissioner.” Similarly, within the HRSJ program, we know that discussing and naming racism is central to our mission of offering a group of first year medical students a chance to develop their understandings of health equity, human rights, and social justice.

That’s one reason why we worked for six months to invite Dr. Bassett, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, to come speak at Mount Sinai about racism in the healthcare system. We also knew that we wanted to complement her systems-level perspective with that of an on-the-ground provider so we invited Dr. Makini Chisolm-Straker, an emergency room doctor at Mount Sinai Brooklyn, to join in the conversation.

On Thursday, November 9, Dr. Bassett and Dr. Chisolm-Straker spent two hours engaged in conversation with students at Mount Sinai about identifying and dismantling racism in the healthcare system. The evening included both a public discussion and a dinner with the current cohort and leadership team of the Human Rights and Social Justice program.



Dr. Mary T. Bassett and Dr. Makini Chisolm-Straker speaking with over 50 students at Mount Sinai.

An important part of the conversation focused on how confronting racism and bias must start with looking in the mirror. Both Dr. Bassett and Dr. Chisolm-Straker discussed their experiences of practicing this at an individual and systems level. In HRSJ, one of the first sessions of our elective course is focused entirely on racism and race in medicine and every other sessions’ topic has important intersections with racism. Pointing to this intersectionality, both speakers talked explicitly about the systemic and historical underpinnings of the racism that we see today and its health impacts. The conversation ended with an important reminder that dismantling this system takes time, but we need to always continue pushing for change.



Dr. Mary T. Bassett and Dr. Makini Chisolm-Straker engaging the HRSJ cohort in conversation over dinner and dessert.

Importantly, this conversation comes as part of a long chain of student-led efforts to encourage the Mount Sinai community to more openly name, discuss, and dismantle racism and bias. Previous work by students has pushed the medical school to raise awareness around issues of bias and racism in the learning environment; brought attention to the issue of institutional separation of healthcare delivery for patients with differing insurance plans within Mount Sinai; and advocated for multilingual signage at Mount Sinai. While much of this work has been done outside of HRSJ and by many students with no affiliation with HRSJ, we are proud that many students from HRSJ have gone on to be involved with these efforts.

At the same TEDMED event, Dr. Bassett said, “Our role as health professionals is not just to treat our patients but to sound the alarm and advocate for change. Rightfully or not, our societal position gives our voices great credibility, and we shouldn’t waste that.” We couldn’t agree more with Dr. Bassett and we’re so grateful that she and Dr. Chisolm-Straker came to Mount Sinai to share their perspectives and help prepare the next generation of physicians to sound the alarm and advocate for change.