How we describe populations and diversity

Stan Gerson

In medicine, it is our responsibility to strive to better understand how the complexities of our population affect our education, clinical and research activities. Recently, issues related to race and ethnicity—including systemic racism and concerns about equity, diversity and inclusiveness—have drawn critical, long-overdue attention in our work. Whether overt or covert, issues related to race and ethnicity confront us daily across our lives—in the news we read and see, in the stories we write and tell, in the research that we do, and in our description of patients and of each other.

We struggle with our descriptors, and our struggles are reflected in our own interactions and responses, how others describe each of us, and how others describe others. So Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine has sought support in focusing our attention and guiding us in difficult discussions, through school experts Blanton S. Tolbert, PhD, professor of chemistry and vice dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Excellence (DEIE); Tina Lining, MS, director of DEIE; and Monica Yepes-Rios, MD, assistant dean of students for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. As we enter our fall semester, we are intent on reminding ourselves of the spectrum and impact of these terms as we approach our educational programs and research through our day-to-day activities.

To help frame these conversations, I learned to appreciate the impact of the descriptors we use reading the recent editorial from the Journal of the American Medical Association. This article helps us frame proper use of terms related to race, ethnicity and underserved populations, how to use the terms “minority” and “marginalized,” when to capitalize terms, and which nouns, such as “Blacks,” to avoid.

When an editorial board of a major medical journal makes a pronouncement, they indeed move the field. It has given me a better understanding and sensitivity around terms I frequently use and provided me with guidance on being more thoughtful and mindful in our complex world. We need to pay attention and be considerate as we frame our curriculum, describe a patient, develop our research questions, and write our research grant applications and publications.

As your dean, I plan to do better, to be conscientious so as to minimize mistakes, and to make tomorrow’s discussions easier for each of us. Please read this article thoughtfully, keep it for reference and adopt the practices described within. I hope it improves your approach to our complex discussions around race and ethnicity. 

Thank you,

Stan Gerson
Interim Dean, School of Medicine
Director, Case Comprehensive Cancer Center
Director, National Center for Regenerative Medicine