Steering the American Medical Association and speaking truth to power: Q&A with Dr. Patrice Harris

On June 11, Patrice A. Harris, MD, made history when she was sworn in as the first black female president of the American Medical Association. Here, she discusses the association's priorities, growth opportunities and leadership lessons she has learned.

Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

patrice harris bio picQuestion: What do you see as the AMA's key priorities today?

Dr. Patrice Harris: As the powerful ally and unifying voice for America's physicians and the patients they serve, our principal goal is to improve the health of the nation, and our priorities are in line with that mission. To that end, we've focused our work in three primary areas: attacking the dysfunction in healthcare by removing obstacles and burdens that interfere with patient care; driving the future of medicine by reimagining medical education, training and lifelong learning and by promoting innovation to tackle the biggest challenges in healthcare; and confronting the chronic disease crisis.

A top issue on our current agenda is the opioid epidemic — to continue the progress that has been made in changing prescribing behavior as well as increasing patient access to timely and effective treatment, both for opioid use disorder and chronic pain. We are also increasing our efforts to improve healthcare equity by ensuring patients have access to the healthcare services they need regardless of their sex, gender identity, race or socioeconomic status. We are pleased more Americans are being insured, but we still need to reduce the ranks of the uninsured.

Protecting the patient-physician relationship is also a core mission, and we are actively working against efforts by some legislatures to mandate the content of conversations in the exam room. And of course, we need to address costly administrative burdens that contribute to physician burnout and divert time away from direct patient care.

Q: What are the key opportunities for growth and innovation at the AMA?

PH: Innovation is at the center of AMA's work to modernize medical education while creating the medical school of the future. The AMA is collaborating with medical schools to accelerate change in medical education and create a system that trains physicians to meet the needs of today's patients and to anticipate future changes. Our Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium now has 37 participating medical schools, and we are supporting the training of approximately 24,000 medical students who will one day care for more than 41 million patients annually. This will ensure physicians are better equipped to provide care in the rapidly evolving healthcare environment. To improve residency training, the AMA recently awarded $14.4 million to eight innovation projects led by medical schools, residency programs and health systems.

The AMA also has a focus on making technology an asset in the delivery of healthcare, not a burden. That's why the AMA is building bridges with the technology sector and bringing the physician voice into the innovation space to inspire the development of technologies that resolve unmet needs in healthcare delivery.

In 2016, AMA launched Health2047, an independent innovation enterprise in the heart of Silicon Valley. It's since spun out companies of its own that directly address critical system needs. Too often, physicians are treated as an afterthought during technology development. Overlooking physician requirements is one reason medical technology may have slow uptake or not live up to its promise. The AMA believes when physicians and tech players are aligned on the challenges and opportunities in healthcare, we can expect meaningful results from the leading edge of technology.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the organization, and what are some ways you plan to overcome them?

PH: Certainly, the cost of care is an enormous concern today. Our challenge is to address the physician side of the cost equation — to help physicians make a transition to new healthcare delivery and payment models that promise to keep patients healthy and avoid complex healthcare problems and the expensive treatments that are associated with them.

Q: What are the most important leadership lessons you have learnt over the course of your career?

PH: To speak truth to power, to be self-aware and to be authentic.

Q: How will the healthcare industry evolve in the next five years, and what role will the AMA play in that evolution?

PH: We expect digital health and the use of augmented intelligence systems will expand and change the way patients and physicians interact — hopefully for the better. Our role will be to ensure that new tools and solutions are broadly accessible yet clinically valid and relevant to our patients' healthcare needs, and that the necessary regulatory structures are in place to assure safety and patient confidentiality.

On the subject of confidentiality, we would also expect that to be a continuing struggle, given all the interest — both clinical and entrepreneurial — in accessing sensitive patient information. We never want to see patients harmed by disclosure of their private information, nor do we want to discourage patients from seeking healthcare out of concern that their confidentiality is not secure.

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