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Editor of JAMA, a Boston University professor, will step down following racial incident

Dr. Howard Bauchner, during a C-SPAN appearance.
Dr. Howard Bauchner, during a C-SPAN appearance.C-SPAN.ORG/NYT

Following an outcry over comments about racism made by an editor at JAMA, the influential medical journal, the top editor, Dr. Howard Bauchner, will step down from his post effective June 30.

The move was announced Tuesday by the American Medical Association, which oversees the journal. Bauchner, who had led JAMA since 2011, had been on administrative leave since March because of an ongoing investigation into comments made on the journal’s podcast.

Dr. Edward Livingston, another editor at JAMA, had asserted that socioeconomic factors, not structural racism, held back communities of color. A tweet promoting the podcast had said that no physician could be racist. It was later deleted.

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“I remain profoundly disappointed in myself for the lapses that led to the publishing of the tweet and podcast,” Bauchner said in a statement. “Although I did not write or even see the tweet, or create the podcast, as editor-in-chief, I am ultimately responsible for them.”

Bauchner is a professor of pediatrics and community health sciences at the Boston University School of Medicine and has served as assistant dean for alumni affairs and continuing medical education.

Last month, the AMA’s leaders admitted to serious missteps and proposed a three-year plan to “dismantle structural racism” within the organization and in medicine. The announcement Tuesday did not mention the status of the investigation at JAMA. The journal declined to comment further.

“This is a real moment for JAMA and the AMA to recreate themselves from a founding history that was based in segregation and racism to one that is now based on racial equity,” said Dr. Stella Safo, a Black primary care physician at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

Safo and her colleagues started a petition, now signed by more than 9,000 people, that had called on JAMA to restructure its staff and hold a series of town hall conversations about racism in medicine.

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“I think that this is a step in the right direction,” she said of the announcement.

But other critics said they were withholding judgment to see how the organization addresses what they saw as pervasive neglect of covering racism’s impact on health in its journals.

“In the entire history of all the JAMA network journals, there’s only been one nonwhite editor,” said Dr. Raymond Givens, a cardiologist at Columbia University in New York.

In October, Givens wrote to Bauchner, noting that editors at the JAMA journals were overwhelmingly white and male. Bauchner did not respond, according to Givens.

“This is not cause to celebrate,” he said of the announcement, adding that he had not intended to jeopardize Bauchner’s job.

Nor will appointing a top editor of color resolve the issues, Givens said.

“Looking for just a person of color misses the point,” he added. “I’m more interested in a bold voice. I want somebody who is willing to take a stand, push to move things forward.”

The podcast that set the events in motion aired Feb. 24 and did not include any Black researchers or experts on racism in medicine.

“Structural racism is an unfortunate term,” Livingston, who is white, said on the podcast. “Personally, I think taking racism out of the conversation will help. Many people like myself are offended by the implication that we are somehow racist.”

The podcast was promoted with a tweet from the journal that said, “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in health care?” Following widespread protest in the medical community, the journal took down the podcast and deleted the tweet.

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“Comments made in the podcast were inaccurate, offensive, hurtful and inconsistent with the standards of JAMA,” Bauchner said in a statement released a week later. “We are instituting changes that will address and prevent such failures from happening again.”

Livingston later resigned, and the AMA placed Bauchner on administrative leave March 25.

The JAMA family of journals added four new titles under Bauchner’s leadership, and expanded to include podcasts, videos and new, shorter article types.

Bauchner’s exit offered the journals a chance to improve, said Dr. Mary Bassett, professor of the practice of health and human rights at Harvard University.

“Medical journals have helped build the racist idea that races have intrinsic differences that have a bearing on health,” Bassett said. Journals are “challenged to embrace, not only accept, racism as a health issue.”

In an editorial published in JAMA on Tuesday, colleagues at the journal lauded Bauchner’s leadership, saying he “has left an indelible legacy of progress, innovation and excellence in medical journalism.”

The AMA said it has begun a search for Bauchner’s replacement. The journal’s executive editor, Dr. Phil Fontanarosa, will serve as interim editor-in-chief.