W.Va. Doctor Elected as First Black Woman President of the American Medical Association


West Virginia native doctor Patrice Harris has been elected as the first black woman president of the American Medical Association. Harris spoke with reporter Kara Lofton recently about her new appointment and what she hopes to accomplish in the position.

LOFTON: West Virginia, and Appalachia as a whole, have a history of health issues. Being familiar with this region, what policies might help improve the health of this region from the perspective of the American Medical Association?

HARRIS: Well first of all, I’m glad you asked about policies. Because one of the things that I was able to learn early on, in fact right out of residency when I visit visited the Georgia state capitol, was the importance of policy and the impact of policy on health — both the health of individuals and the health of the broader community. And in fact, that is one reason why I first got involved in organized medicine.

We have as two of our areas of strategic focus right now pre-diabetes and hypertension. We know that there are so many folks who have risk factors for developing diabetes. We know that there are a significant number of our citizens who have untreated hypertension. Both of those conditions lead to, of course, more significant and serious consequences later on. So, it’s about prevention. It’s about identifying chronic care conditions early. The AMA, of course, is very supportive of the fact that coverage is important and that everyone should have access to coverage so that they can identify routine sources of care, again, to identify illnesses early. And in fact, hopefully, to go even further upstream to prevent those issues. The AMA has long standing and very deep and wide policy portfolio when it comes to addressing what we call “the social determinants of health” — those factors outside the exam rooms where we need to address, we need to make sure that there are opportunities for everyone to have access to fresh food and opportunities to exercise and increase our physical activity. When we are talking about health and preventing illnesses, we have to make the right thing to do the easy thing to do. And so the AMA has great policy.

I’m very proud of the work that I have done regarding the social determinants of health. We need to make sure that there is health equity to address areas of health disparity. The strategies, the needs, the interventions that are needed in West Virginia may in some ways be different that are needed here in Atlanta, Georgia. And so, it’s important to have a community focus as we look into addressing health issues.

LOFTON: What are the main things you hope to tackle under your tenure as president of the American Medical Association?

HARRIS: Well at the American Medical Association the president, of course and I won’t be president until next June, is the primary spokesperson for the policies of the AMA and the broader physician community. You know the AMA House the Delegates is represented of all states and all specialties — that is very powerful, where we have representatives, again, come from all over this country and decide what is a policy. So first and foremost be a spokesperson for our policy. We have three areas that we are focused on focusing on — I mentioned chronic disease. As part of that, as you know, I chair the AMA’s opioid task force. So that is under our chronic disease umbrella.

We also are looking at innovating around the way we train our next generation of leaders.

And our third priority is to reduce the administrative and regulatory and other burdens that are interfering with physicians’ ability to care for our patients. So we have those three broad areas.

But as a woman, as an African-American, as someone who grew up in a family where there were no physician relatives from a small town, I hope to be an inspiration to those who would like to seek a career in the health care arena and particularly seek to be a physician. And I will say, the other issue is — as you know I am a psychiatrist, and I hope to again continue to amplify the importance of mental health care and the criticality of integrating mental health care and understanding mental health care as a very important part of overall health care — not a separate phenomenon, but important as we address health care in general. So again, it’s going to be a wonderful opportunity. And I just hope to continue to be able to give voice to those policies that we know can improve the health of our nation.

Appalachia Helth News

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.