Medical students’ knowledge of race-related history reveals areas for improvement in achieving health equity

Charles Sanky, Halbert Bai, Celestine He, Jacob M. Appel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Medical schools have increasingly integrated social justice, anti-racism, and health equity training into their curricula. Yet, no research examines whether medical students understand the complex history of racial injustice. We sought to investigate the relationship between medical students’ historical knowledge and their perceptions regarding health equity. Methods: Medical students at one large urban medical school self-rated their familiarity and importance of various racially-significant historical events and persons, as well as their agreement with statements regarding health equity, education, and preparedness to act. Descriptive and multivariate analyses were conducted in R. Results: Of 166 (RR=31.3%) participants, 96% agreed that understanding historical context is necessary in medicine; yet 65% of students could not describe the historical significance of racial events or persons. Only 57% felt that they understood this context, and the same percentage felt other medical students did not. A minority of students felt empowered (40%) or prepared (31%) to take action when they witness racial injustice in healthcare. Multiracial identity was significantly associated with increased knowledge of African American history (p<0.01), and a humanities background was significantly associated with increased knowledge of Latin American history (p=0.017). There was a positive, significant relationship between advocacy statements, such as “I have taken action” (p<0.001) and “I know the roots of racism” (p<0.001) with mean familiarity of historical events. Conclusions: This study demonstrates that while students agree that racism has no place in healthcare, there remains a paucity of knowledge regarding many events and figures in the history of American race relations and civil rights, with implications for future physicians’ patient care and health equity efforts.

Original languageEnglish
Article number612
JournalBMC Medical Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Anti-racism
  • Health equity
  • Medical education
  • Medical history
  • Race


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