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Med students: Prude case highlights racism at UR

An open letter cites ways the students say Black patients are treated differently

Sean Lahman Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
The UR Medicine logo is seen posted on one of the Strong Memorial Hospital buildings in Rochester in March.

A group of students at the University of Rochester Medical Center has penned an open letter urging the school to acknowledge its own failures in the Daniel Prude case and to take concrete steps to address systemic racism within the institution.

The group, called White Coats for Black Lives, is comprised of more than 200 trainees at all levels across the medical center, including medical students, nursing and advanced practice providers, residents, and graduate students.

Prude died from asphyxia in March while police were attempting to subdue him during an apparent mental health crisis. His death was ruled a homicide by the county medical examiner. Prude had been taken to URMC's Strong Memorial Hospital, hours earlier, but family members say he was released a short time later without receiving adequate care.

Officials at URMC disputed that conclusion, saying it had reviewed the care it provided to the 41-year-old Chicago man and concluded it was "medically appropriate and compassionate."

In their open letter, the students say what happened to Prude reflects fundamental problems with the way the institution operates.

The letter cites specific ways in which Black patients are treated differently at URMC and cites academic studies about the depth and breadth of that problem.

"Not only do our current models of healthcare leave gaping holes for individuals such as Daniel to fall through, but they do so in manners which are fraught with racism," the open letter said. "Racism is laid in the foundation of modern medicine, and it pulses within the walls of our institutions."

The open letter concludes that in the Prude case, "the cultures of law enforcement and medicine worked in tandem to blame Daniel Prude for his own murder."

With an annual budget of $3.8 billion, the University of Rochester Medical Center is the largest entity of the University of Rochester, which itself is the largest private-sector employer in Upstate New York and the sixth-largest employer in the state.

The open letter echoes similar calls from other campus organizations asking the University to address systemic racism within its own institution and its role in the broader community.

A spokesperson for URMC declined to comment on the open letter, saying university leaders would respond to the group directly as part of its efforts to develop the school's anti-racism action plan, which should be released later this month.

In June, a list of "recommended corrective actions" was made to the University of Rochester Medical Center and the School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD) from the Underrepresented Medical Students, Residents, and Allies of these institutions as part of the National White Coats for Black Lives campaign.

That list included a number of requests that had first been made by students in 2015 and again in 2019, in response to a Racial Justice Report Card. That study examined how well the country's academic medical centers did at promoting diversity and inclusion, and whether they had committed to policies and practices that intentionally promote racial justice.

The University of Rochester was one of 10 schools that received a grade of C+ in the report, indicating that the institution did not meet the study's anti-racism standards.

Among the demands outlined in June was the abolition of public safety structures centered on policing and violence, and a specific demand that the medical center cut all ties with the Rochester Police Department.

"We must take responsibility for our roles in the structures which perpetuate racism in policing and move swiftly to abolish them, the open letter explains. "We understand the discomfort evoked by phrases such as “abolition of public safety,” but let us be clear: There is no safe space for marginalized communities at the medical center and on all UR campuses when we invest in police centered approaches to public safety."

Students have also demanded that the university address racial disparities in admissions and in staffing at the hospital, and that it incorporate comprehensive anti-racism education into the medical school curriculum.

"The culture of medicine frames Black people as unengaged and apathetic while reducing Black bodies to animalistic qualities," the open letter said. "Numerous studies show that Black patients are systemically undertreated for pain relative to their white counterparts. The authors of Toward the Abolition of Biological Race in Medicine, a project of Berkeley Public Health, write, 'racist, outdated notions are taught in clinical education, solidified in research and perpetuated in practice.'"

A group of students called the UR Abolition Coalition on River Campus issued its own set of similar demands earlier this month.

"As students, we are committed to reimagining what it means to be a community and what it means to be in community with others," the Coalition wrote. "This means fostering a public safety that is derived from mutual support instead of policing."

Members of the White Coats for Black Lives say they have been in communication with the administration about their demands and are awaiting the publication of their anti-racism action plan.

"The petitions submitted to this University have made clear that this institution has been failing its learners, its medical teams, its patients, and its surrounding communities," the open letter said. "Our position as a leading academic medical center is compromised, and if our approach to anti-racism lacks acknowledgment of and action against police brutality, which has long served as a contributing factor to the health disparities racism has fostered, this institution will succumb to its failures."