AMA Takes On Vaccine Misinformation, Physician Vaccines, and Racism

Ken Terry

November 20, 2020

The American Medical Association (AMA) House of Delegates this week adopted a policy to educate physicians on how to speak with patients about COVID-19 vaccination to counteract widespread misinformation about the vaccine development process.

Other highlights of the AMA's recent special meeting include a new policy on the ethics of physicians getting immunized against COVID-19 and a far-reaching statement about racism.

Under the organization's new vaccination education policy, the AMA will provide physicians with "culturally appropriate patient education materials," according to a news release.

This campaign will be conducted "bearing in mind the historical context of 'experimentation' with vaccines and other medication in communities of color," the AMA said, apparently alluding to the infamous Tuskegee study of syphilis in Black men.

Educating the public about the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine programs is an "urgent priority," the AMA said. This is especially true among populations that have been disproportionately affected by the disease, the organization said. Black and Latinx people are being hospitalized for COVID-19 at far higher rates than White Americans.

"Under the new policy, the AMA will help address patient concerns, dispel misinformation, and build confidence in COVID-19 vaccination," the release states. The AMA also plans to build a coalition of healthcare and public health organizations to develop and implement a joint public education program.

Polls have indicated that many people will not get vaccinated when supplies of the new COVID-19 vaccines are available, although public support is rising. A recent Gallup poll found that 58% of surveyed adults were willing to be inoculated, up from 50% in September.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey in September found that a majority of Americans were skeptical of a rushed vaccine, because they were concerned that the Trump administration was pressuring the US Food and Drug Administration to approve a vaccine before the election.

"Given the unprecedented situation with COVID-19 and with vaccine development moving at a rapid pace, many of our patients and the public have questions and concerns," said AMA President Susan R. Bailey, MD, in the release. "It is essential that we speak together as a strong, unified voice across healthcare and public health, inclusive of organizations respected in communities of color; to use scientific, fact-based evidence to help allay public concerns; and build confidence in COVID-19 vaccine candidates that are determined to be safe and effective."

Physician, Immunize Thyself

The AMA also adopted a new ethics policy about physician immunization. On Monday, the AMA House of Delegates stated that physicians who are not immunized from a vaccine-preventable disease have an ethical responsibility to take appropriate actions to protect patients and colleagues.

The AMA Code of Ethics has long maintained that physicians have a strong ethical duty to accept immunizations when a safe, effective vaccine is available. However, the organization said in a news release, "it is not ethically problematic to exempt individuals when a specific vaccine poses a risk due to underlying medical conditions."

Ethical concerns arise when physicians are allowed to decline vaccinations for nonmedical reasons, according to a report presented to the House of Delegates by the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs.

According to the newly amended AMA ethical guidance, "physicians who are not or cannot be immunized have a responsibility to voluntarily take appropriate actions to protect patients, fellow health care workers and others." This includes refraining from direct patient contact.

The delegates also approved a guidance asserting that physician practices and healthcare institutions are responsible for developing policies and procedures for responding to pandemics and epidemics. These policies and procedures should outline appropriate protective equipment allocation, staff immunization programs, and infection control practices.

Combating Systemic Racism

In an effort to reduce racial disparities in healthcare, the AMA House of Delegates adopted new policies recognizing race as a social construct, rather than a biological construct.

"The policies aim to advance data-driven, anti-racist concepts challenging the current clinical application of race and its effects on vulnerable patient populations," an AMA statement said.

The new AMA policies "reflect an understanding of race as a socially constructed category different from ethnicity, genetic ancestry, or biology, and aim to end the misinterpretation of race as a biological category defined by genetic traits or biological differences," the AMA said.

According to the AMA, the practice of accepting race as a biological construct "exacerbates health disparities and results in detrimental health outcomes for marginalized and minoritized communities."

Specifically, the AMA said it supports ending the practice of using race as a proxy for biology in medical education, research, and clinical practice. It also encourages medical education programs to recognize the harmful effects of this approach. It recommends that clinicians and researchers focus on genetics and biology, the experience of racism, and social determinants of health when describing risk factors for disease.

"The AMA is dedicated to dismantling racist and discriminatory policies and practices across all of health care, and that includes the way we define race in medicine," said AMA Board Member Michael Suk, MD, in its statement. "We believe it is not sufficient for medicine to be non-racist, which is why the AMA is committed to pushing for a shift in thinking from race as a biological risk factor to a deeper understanding of racism as a determinant of health."

The AMA also plans to partner with physician organizations and other stakeholders "to identify any problematic aspects of medical education that may perpetuate institutional and structural racism." For example, the AMA will work with other organizations to improve clinical algorithms that incorrectly adjust for race and lead to less-than-optimal care for minority patients.

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