First Black Female AMA President Talks Policy, Health Equity

The Chicago-based American Medical Association is the country’s largest association of doctors and medical students. Now, for the first time ever, the organization has an African American woman as its president.

Dr. Patrice Harris, a psychiatrist from Atlanta, was inaugurated in June to the yearlong position. And while the AMA doesn’t represent all U.S. doctors, the organization is an influential advocacy group for a wide range of issues across the health and medical industries.

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Looking ahead to her priorities over the next year, Harris says she hopes “to elevate the importance of mental health into overall health care, to elevate the importance of health equity, and making sure we have a diverse physician workforce … we need to work toward the faces of physicians matching the faces of our patients.” 

As a lobbying group, the AMA has had an active presence in the health care debate, staunchly supporting the Affordable Care Act since it was passed under President Barack Obama in 2010.

The group has also held a longstanding opposition to single payer health care. But at its June meeting, the AMA House of Delegates only narrowly voted down a motion to overturn that policy. 

“Certainly in our huge House of Delegates, you have a wide range of opinions, all towards getting to coverage for everyone,” Harris said. “But at the end of the day, after the debate, there’s a vote, and the vote this year has been to maintain our current policy.”

The AMA also recently waded into the abortion debate, filing a lawsuit earlier this month to block two laws in North Dakota the association says threaten the underlying trust between doctors and their patients. 

The laws, Harris said, “compel physicians to provide information that is false, and misleading, and not science-based. And so that would be a violation of our duty to our patients … it is our obligation to give patients accurate information, and that is why we filed that lawsuit.”

Another issue Harris is prioritizing is health equity. That comes as a recent study in Chicago found a 30-year life expectancy gap between residents of the affluent Streeterville neighborhood and the low-income Englewood neighborhood on the South Side.

Harris says discrepancies like this aren’t just about access to doctors and hospitals. 

“It is about your physical environment, whether you have access to healthy, nutritious foods. Even looking at some of the more structural policies in place, such as past discrimination and racism, all of those impact a person’s health, and that’s why you see those differences in zip code,” she said.  

Hoping to address some of these discrepancies, the AMA recently hired its first-ever chief health equity officer.

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