Materializing Systemic Racism, Materializing Health Disparities

American Journal of Bioethics 21 (9):16-18 (2021)
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The purpose of cultural competence education for medical professionals is to ensure respectful care and reduce health disparities. Yet as Berger and Miller (2021) show, the cultural competence framework is dated, confused, and self-defeating. They argue that the framework ignores the primary driver of health disparities—systemic racism—and is apt to exacerbate rather than mitigate bias and ethnocentrism. They propose replacing cultural competence with a framework that attends to two social aspects of structural inequality: health and social policy, and institutional-system activity; and two psychological aspects of structural inequality: the clinical encounter, and the epistemic. We agree with the structural approach. To that end, we think it would be fruitful to include attention to physical contributors to structural inequality, namely the material artifacts used in medicine. Devices, tools, and technologies can materialize biases, perpetuate oppression, and contribute to health disparities. Granted, not everything that interests philosophers can be squeezed into medical education. Nevertheless, there are compelling reasons for including the study of material artifacts in education designed to reduce health disparities. First, devices and tools often carry forward biases from the past, and keep biases hidden from plain sight. Second, by studying these artifacts, future clinicians can begin to see themselves as part of a larger sociotechnical system. Finally, as medicine becomes increasingly tech-laden, it’s important for clinicians to see how material artifacts (including algorithms) connect individuals to structures. This will help to undermine oversimplified narratives according to which objective tools and technologies can correct for the bias and subjectivity of flawed human beings.

Author Profiles

Vanessa Carbonell
University of Cincinnati
Shen-yi Liao
University of Puget Sound


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