Journal Retracts MD Article for 'Racist Characterizations'

Ivan Oransky, MD

February 15, 2019

February 16, 2019 — Editor's note: A previous version of this story linked to a PDF of the now-retracted article because the article is no longer available on the publisher's website. That link has been removed in response to copyright claims by the journal's publisher.

After facing sharp criticism from readers, the journal Neurology has retracted an essay about a patient encounter that it acknowledged "contains racist characterizations."

The article, "Lucky and the Root Doctor," reported on "Reggie, a 60-year-old black man referred because of muscle weakness and suspected inflammatory myopathy." It described Reggie's wife as "a roly-poly woman" whose "abundant rolls of fat jiggled as she giggled."

The piece, originally published online February 12, went on: "I once shared a table at a fried chicken fast food establishment with a nice African American lady. Immensely enjoying her fries, she sat with the shaker in one chubby fist and liberally salted each individual fry."

Yesterday, in a retraction notice, the journal said that the article "should not have been published. We sincerely apologize for our error.

"This story, a recollection by a doctor of a former patient, contains racist characterizations," the notice continued. "This has prompted a re-evaluation of our peer review process for humanities articles, and we are re-doubling our efforts to make sure such material is never published again."

Neurology Editor-in-Chief Robert A. Gross, MD, PhD, wrote in a letter to readers, "The article is not what Neurology stands for and is not what we believe. Our process failed us." Gross did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The author of the article, William W. Campbell, MD, MSHA, said that he did not mean to offend anyone.

"The retracted article described an encounter with a memorable patient that reached across the generational and ethnic divide," Campbell told Medscape Medical News by email. "It is a work of creative nonfiction that describes real people and real events in a literary way. Some took offense. Certainly, none was intended."

Campbell, an emeritus professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences and a retired colonel in the US Army, added: "It is unfortunate that sensibilities in our society now create an inability to transcend cultural barriers by telling true stories."

A Teachable Moment

One reader who wrote to the journal about her concern is not sure the retraction was enough. "I really have to question, 'How did such an ignorant piece get published in the first place?' " said Kendra Williams, a medical student in Texas who asked that her medical school not be named because she is in the middle of the Match process.

"I think there is quite a bit more work to do in medicine and in academic journal representation," Williams told Medscape Medical News by email. "As a black woman who practices medicine, while I'm disappointed in this situation, it does not come as a surprise as I've witnessed these encounters and situations even at my home institution! We aren't in the 50s! These are young physicians and soon to be physicians that hold these ideals as well!"

Katherine Sharkey, MD, PhD, assistant dean for women in medicine and science at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, said that she "pulled a copy before they took it down because there are people in academic medicine who still deny institutional racism and 'don't see color' and don't understand what our students, house staff and colleagues who are underrepresented minorities have to put up with on a day-to-day basis. So, I figured it would be a useful example.

"Medicine relies on discussing patient cases — they help us learn to be better doctors and take care of situations we haven't encountered before," Sharkey told Medscape Medical News by email. "But case discussions with a cultural component rely on doctors practicing cultural humility and appreciative inquiry."

Ivan Oransky, MD, is Medscape vice president for editorial and cofounder of Retraction Watch.

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