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

When we invited Dr. Mary T. Bassett, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, to speak about racism in the health care system at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS), we knew that it would be a powerful conversation. Not only because she has never been one to stay silent on important issues, but mostly because of what she stated during a  2015 TEDMED talk:  “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.”

To complement Dr. Bassett’s systems-level perspective, we invited Dr. Makini Chisolm-Straker, an emergency room doctor at Mount Sinai Brooklyn, who would be able to lend an on-the-ground angle to the discussion. On Thursday, November 9, Drs. Bassett and Chisolm-Straker spent two hours engaged in lively conversation with ISMMS students about identifying and dismantling racism in the health care system.

An important part of the conversation focused on how confronting racism and bias begins by looking in the mirror. Drs. Bassett and Chisolm-Straker relayed their self-reflective experiences to confront racism and bias within themselves and on a systemic level. In the Human Rights and Social Justice Program (HRSJ) at the Icahn School of Medicine, one of the first sessions of our elective course focuses entirely on racism, race in medicine, and societal intersections. 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 important reminders: Dismantling systemic racism takes time, and always push for change.

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. Much of this work has been done outside of the formal structure of HRSJ, and we are proud that many students Have been involved with this important work during their tenure at the School.

While this was the first time HRSJ hosted speakers at an event open to the entire Mount Sinai community, HRSJ has existed since 2011 and offers students a comprehensive curriculum in health equity, human rights, and social justice through mentorship, research, advocacy, and coursework. The goal of the program is to empower medical students with the knowledge, skill set, and conviction to become patient advocates in the broadest sense. We hope that this discussion is only the first of similar events where HRSJ is able to serve as a resource for the Mount Sinai community.

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 the School to share their perspectives and help prepare the next generation of physicians to sound the alarm on systemic racism and advocate for change.


The Human Rights and Social Justice Program offers a group of first-year medical students a chance to develop their understanding of health equity, human rights, and social justice. Over the years, the program has served as an important community of students at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who are dedicated to issues of justice and equity.

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