(CNN) -- The American Medical Association, the nation's largest organization of physicians, apologized Thursday for its history of discriminatory policies toward African-American physicians, including those that effectively restricted membership to whites.
Dr. Nelson L. Adams said the AMA's practices had a "devastating" effect on African-Americans' health.
"We are apologizing for policies and practices that we had that ... are offensive to AMA leaders today," the organization's immediate past president, Dr. Ronald M. Davis, told CNN. "Our major goal in this matter is to confront the past to build a better future."
For a long portion of the organization's history, the AMA required that its members belong to a state or local medical society, groups that in some states did not allow African-Americans as members, Davis said.
"AMA declined to take actions against those societies," he said, and "few African-Americans ... were able to become members of AMA for that reason."
The move comes amid a number of efforts undertaken by the organization in recent decades to lessen racial inequality in the field of medicine.
They include: attempts to increase the number of African-Americans who enter medical school, recruiting African-Americans and minorities for AMA membership, and addressing racial disparities in health care.
The National Medical Association, an African-American physician group founded in 1895 when AMA membership was out of reach for most African-Americans, said it accepted the apology.
"We commend the AMA for taking this courageous step and coming to grips with a litany of discriminatory practices that have had a devastating effect on the health of African-Americans," the organization's president, Dr. Nelson L. Adams, said in a written statement.
However, the organization said that the AMA's policies of discrimination have contributed to disparity in health care for African-Americans.
"These persistent, race-based health disparities have led to a precipitous decline in the health of African-Americans when compared to their white counterparts and the population as a whole," Dr. Nedra H. Joyner, chair of the NMA's board of trustees, said in the statement.
Joyner said African-Americans disproportionately suffer from chronic diseases that include heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
"In accepting this apology for past wrongs, it is important we seize this opportunity to move forward to correct these injustices," she said.