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Three weeks after a colleague defaced the George Floyd memorial, more than 150 University of Minnesota medical residents are urging the administration to act on broader problems than just the former student’s future.
In a letter sent to Jakub Tolar, the medical school dean, the residents ask for three main things: That the university “strongly condemn” the defacing of the Floyd memorial as an act of hate and racism, that it develop ways for students and residents to report racial mistreatment and micro-aggressions on campus and in the clinical setting, and that it act on patient harassment of learners of color.
“Our first duty must always be to ‘Do No Harm’ to our patients and community,” the letter reads. “We believe that holding the perpetrator of this crime and our institutions accountable will be the best way for the University of Minnesota Medical School, and for us, to hold true to that principle.”
The letter comes two weeks after medical students staged a protest calling for the school to expel Daniel Michelson, the student who was caught Aug. 18 vandalizing the mural of Floyd at the site of his killing by police.
Ramla Kasozi, a third-year family medicine resident who helped draft the letter, said the petition is meant as both an expression of solidarity with the Black community and as an effort to move forward in addressing the broader issue of institutional racism in the medical community.
In discussing the letter, Kasozi emphasized how Floyd’s killing sparked protests across the world and a nationwide reckoning on racism.
“The world is watching Minnesota,” said Kasozi, a former refugee from Uganda who grew up in Canada. “Minnesota should really be leading the country in antiracism work, and so this is really our contribution to the whole effort.”
University spokesperson Katrinna Dodge said the school received the letter and is working with Ana Núñez, the medical school’s vice dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, “to develop a thoughtful and coordinated response.”
The university hasn’t commented on Michelson’s future, other than to say he is no longer a student as of August 20. Michelson was last listed on the university website as a medical student during the summer.
Michelson, who did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story, previously expressed remorse over his actions to the Minnesota Reformer, saying he was drinking alone that night and didn’t remember spray painting the Floyd mural.
Following Michelson’s actions, Tolar released a public statement denouncing them and maintaining that the university “has taken a strong stand against racism and openly condemned the death of George Floyd.” But for James Smith, another third-year family medicine resident who also signed the letter, that isn’t enough. “Before you can start to act and make any changes, you have to identify what the issue is,” Smith said. “By not identifying this as an act of racism, it doesn’t allow us to take that step and move towards anti-racism.”
The petition also calls on the school to be aware of and take action on professionals and patients who engage in racist behavior. Many times, doctors of color will not know what to do when a patient makes a racist comment to them, Kasozi said.
“You’re just trying to survive through a learning environment that was not built for you,” she said.
Doctors and medical students of color need support from their institutions when they experience such acts so they feel they are working in safe environments, she said.
Smith, who is Black, said he’s already been working with other residents on creating curriculum instructing students on how to best report such behavior. He said the university has been supportive.
“A lot of times it’s side comments or things that don’t happen,” Smith said. “And it’s harder to report something that was denied to you rather than an act of aggression towards you.”
Another goal of the residents is to get the university to address the role racism in health care historically has played in patient outcomes. Smith said several of the patients at his clinic felt wronged or profiled in the past while navigating healthcare. This can prompt patients to give up on care entirely.
“We’ve often run interference to help support our patients who feel they’ve been wronged or stereotyped,” Smith said. “Not only is there bias in treating patients, but also patients feeling bad and not even accessing care.”
In asking the dean to develop accountability measures, the letter also the school a timeline. The residents want the school to develop a mechanism for medical residents to report racial mistreatment within the next two months. They want a code of conduct for patients posted at all hospitals and clinics where university residents work by July 2021.