March 25, 2021 -- One of the top research journals in the United States has placed its editor in chief on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into a controversial podcast episode that critics labeled as racist.
The American Medical Association’s Journal Oversight Committee announced that Howard Bauchner, MD, is on leave beginning at the end of the day. Bauchner is the top editor at JAMA, the journal of the AMA.
“The decision to place the editor-in-chief on administrative leave neither implicates nor exonerates individuals and is standard operating procedure for such investigations,” the committee said in a statement.
However, many critics of the podcast see this as an important first step. The decision to remove Bauchner during the investigation “potentially corroborates JAMA's intentions to become a more culturally competent organization,” says Steven Bradley, MD, an anesthesiologist and fellow of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics.
“Hopefully, this signifies an increased effort to diversify the staff at JAMA, as increased diversity will provide additional viewpoints on issues surrounding ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status,” says Bradley, who hosts The Black Doctor Podcast. “These issues have always been important because these are the issues our patients deal with.”
Already, Edward H. Livingston, MD, the host of the podcast has resigned as deputy editor of the journal.
During the podcast, Livingston, who is white, said, “Structural racism is an unfortunate term. Personally, I think taking racism out of the conversation will help. Many of us are offended by the concept that we are racist.”
The audio of podcast has been deleted from JAMA’s website. In its place is audio of a statement from Bauchner. In his statement, which he released last week, he said the comments in the podcast, which also featured Mitch Katz, MD, were “inaccurate, offensive, hurtful and inconsistent with the standards of JAMA.”
Also deleted was a JAMA tweet promoting the podcast episode. The tweet said: “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in health care? An explanation of the idea by doctors for doctors in this user-friendly podcast.”
But Bradley criticized JAMA’s decision to remove the podcast as a missed opportunity to make it a learning tool and case study.
“As a podcast host and creator, I bear full responsibility for what I release,” Bradley says. “My platform is much smaller than the JAMA network, however, and with a greater platform comes greater responsibility.”
And academic physicians of color have lost their jobs for less, said Ebony Jade Hilton, MD, associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at University of Virginia. Hilton cited an incident involving Aysha Khoury, MD, an internist, who said she was fired from Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine in Pasadena,CA, after a discussion with her students on racism.
“We’ve been screaming for generations that Black lives matter. It’s been the same cry for generations to say we see, we live, we experience racism,” Hilton says. “For physicians to try to deny and erase that voice is an injustice of its own.”
But she also said it is disappointing it had to come to this – a sentiment echoed by Simone Wildes, MD, who serves on the Massachusetts Department of Health's COVID-19 Health Equity advisory group.
“It’s an unfortunate situation at JAMA, however it is a teachable moment for JAMA leadership to acknowledge racism and put programs in place to reduce racism in the medical field,” Wildes says. “It can begin today, and this would be the first step in the right direction.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong name for the committee that announced Howard Bauchner has been placed on leave. It is the Journal Oversight Committee, not the Joint Oversight Committee.