AMA Past-President Discusses Need for Leadership During Annual Lecture on Minority Health

The immediate past-president of the American Medical Association, Patrice Harris, M.D., said leadership is vital to properly address the persistent gaps and inequities in health care that have been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harris delivered the UMKC School of Medicine’s Dr. Reaner and Mr. Henry Shannon Lecture in Minority Health on Feb. 12 in a virtual event. She served as president of the AMA in 2020 during the onslaught of the pandemic.

View the 2021 Dr. Reaner & Mr. Henry Shannon Lectureship in Minority Health

“I think we can all agree that we have a lot on our to-do list, going forward, post COVID, and it’s going to require leadership,” said Harris, the first African American woman to serve as AMA president.

Harris said that as the coronavirus evolved, one of the AMA’s primary roles under her guidance was to ensure that the organization provided the most up-to-date, evidence-based resources and information in the midst of a public health crisis.

“You want to make sure that you are leading and providing accurate information,” she said. “Clearly it was also our priority to make sure that physicians, practices and health care systems had the resources needed to navigate through the disruption. It certainly has been a tremendous disruption and still is. We wanted to make sure that we were fighting for physicians and practices and health care institutions so that we could better serve our patients.”

Harris shared what she said was a 25-year journey to becoming the 174th president of the AMA. She recalled that it wasn’t until after she had completed her undergraduate years of college at West Virginia that she met her first African American female physician.

After earning her medical degree in 1992 and becoming a psychiatrist, Harris served in leadership roles with several psychiatric organizations including the American Psychiatric Association.

Today, Harris is a psychiatrist and recognized expert in children’s mental health and childhood trauma. She serves as an adjunct assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Morehouse School of Medicine and the Emory Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. In private practice, she consults public and private organizations on health service delivery and emerging trends in practice and health policy.

Along her journey to leading the AMA, Harris learned some lifelong lessons such as the importance of working together. The advocacy victories achieved in Washington, D.C., and at state levels don’t typically come through working in silos and without partnerships, Harris said.

Another vital learning moment in leadership came in realizing the need to embrace differing opinions.

“It is sometimes difficult if you are in the room and you’re the only one that has a disconfirming opinion,” she said. “But leadership requires us to make sure we voice appropriately, respectfully, strategically, disconfirming opinions.”

That, Harris added, includes having what can be tough discussions about issues including social and institutional inequities.

“We have to have the sometimes very difficult conversations about racism,” she said. “It is up to institutions, universities, the AMA, businesses, Fortune 100 companies, Fortune 500 companies to make sure they are having these conversations and make sure that the folks around the decision-making tables about to have these conversations are in contact with their stakeholders.”

The annual Dr. Reaner and Mr. Henry Shannon Lectureship in Minority Health creates an awareness about health disparities and provides medical professionals, students, residents and the local community information about timely issues that affect underserved and minority communities.