JAMA editor-in-chief stepping down amid fallout of 'No physician is racist' controversy

Howard Bauchner, M.D., said he did not have a direct hand in the now-deleted JAMA content questioning structural racism in healthcare but accepted responsibility for its release as the publisher's editor-in-chief. He has held the top position for nearly 10 years. (Getty/AndreyPopov)

The editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association will formally step down from his position following public outcry over a podcast and tweet published under his watch.

Howard Bauchner, M.D., has held the role for almost a decade but was placed on administrative leave in late March roughly a month after the medical journal released a controversial podcast featuring then-Deputy Editor Ed Livingston, M.D., and Mitchell Katz, M.D., deputy editor for JAMA Internal Medicine and CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals.

The episode kicked off a discussion on structural racism by questioning its existence in healthcare. It was promoted with a tweet that read: “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in healthcare?”

The tweet and podcast sparked criticisms from the public—notably from Aletha Maybank, M.D., chief health equity officer of the American Medical Association (AMA), with which the journals are affiliated. It also fueled a change.org petition calling for JAMA to review Bauchner’s leadership and restructure the publication’s editorial staff.

“The delivery of messages suggesting that racism is non-existent and therefore non-problematic within the medical field is harmful to both our underrepresented minoritized physicians and the marginalized communities served in this country,” the petition, which has been signed by more than 9,000 people as of today, reads. “As members, representatives, and allies of the underrepresented in the medical community, signatured participants of this letter urge JAMA to implement change that will immediately address JAMA’s failed message to the medical community.”

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Both the podcast and the tweet were deleted following the backlash.

Livingston resigned from his position as JAMA deputy editor in March. Bauchner, Katz and AMA CEO and Executive Vice President James Madara, M.D., each issued statements apologizing for the content and affirming the presence of structural racism in medicine.

Howard Bauchner, M.D.
(JAMA Network)

“Comments made in the podcast were inaccurate, offensive, hurtful and inconsistent with the standards of JAMA,” Bauchner said in an audio apology addressing the podcast. “Racism and structural racism exist in the U.S. and in healthcare. After careful consideration, I determined that the harms caused by the podcast outweighed any reason for the podcast to remain available on the JAMA Network.”

Bauchner’s last day as editor-in-chief of JAMA and JAMA Network will be June 30, the AMA said in a June 1 statement. Executive Editor Phil Fontanarosa, M.D., will serve in the interim as the organization forms a search committee to appoint a new top editor.

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Bauchner said in the announcement that he did not create the podcast nor write or read the tweet before it was released, but as editor-in-chief accepts responsibility for their publication.

“I remain profoundly disappointed in myself for the lapses that led to the publishing of the tweet and podcast,” Bauchner said in the announcement.

“I share and have always supported the AMA’s commitment to dismantling structural racism in the institutions of American medicine, as evident by numerous publications in JAMA on this issue and related subjects, and look forward to personally contributing to that work going forward. To advance equity in medicine, my contributions will be best accomplished in other venues. The best path forward for the JAMA Network, and for me personally, is to create an opportunity for new leadership at JAMA,” he said.

Bauchner held the editor-in-chief position since July 2011.

His tenure saw the creation of the JAMA Network family of journals as well as the launch of four new journals: JAMA Oncology, JAMA Cardiology, JAMA Network Open and JAMA Health Forum. The publications also increased their online reach during that time, going from 29 million article views in 2012 to 135 million in 2020, according to a JAMA editorial announcing the departure.

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The podcast controversy came amid a year of social unrest and as the AMA and other professional medical organizations took new actions to combat issues of race within healthcare.

In May, AMA released a three-year road map outlining its strategic plan to improve racial justice and advance health equity in the organization and the industry.

The association also removed a bust and display honoring founder Nathan Davis in February due to his racist background and approved new policies characterizing race as a social, not biological, construct in November.