Rising to lead the nation’s oldest and largest medical association, founded in 1847, makes her “tangible evidence” of possibilities despite obstacles, she said during an interview this month at Baylor College of Medicine, just one week after her installation.
“During my inaugural speech, I talked about being a sum of my parts—all of who I am: African American, a woman, a psychiatrist, born and raised in coal country with a strong family background,” Harris said.
That address explored the AMA’s top three priorities: Attacking dysfunction in health care, driving the future of medicine—namely through medical education—and improving health outcomes by preventing chronic disease and confronting health crises.
“They don’t change with each presidency,” Harris noted. “Each president brings their own unique lens to the work of the AMA.”
Harris, an Atlanta-area physician and educator, was born and raised in the small town of Bluefield, West Virginia. She earned three degrees at West Virginia University before her residency and fellowships at Emory University in Georgia.
She didn’t meet a Black female physician until after she finished her undergraduate degree.
“The road hasn’t been easy. I don’t want anyone to think that it has been without struggle and challenges,” Harris said. “Sometimes, we make things look too easy and then our younger generations think everything is a straight line.”
She advocates developing coping skills to manage those times when others undervalue and presume.
“Breathe and know that you are enough,” she said. “There are times you speak up. You know who you are. You know your value. You require respect. You do have to build that support system. … Be authentic and speak truth to power.”
Harris, who maintains close ties to Appalachia, led the AMA’s efforts to end the opioid epidemic. She has chaired the AMA Opioid Task Force since its inception in 2014 and will retain that role during her presidential tenure.
Harris visited Baylor College of Medicine on June 18, 2019, for its Center of Excellence in Health Equity, Training and Research’s annual Summer Research Summit and delivered the keynote speech entitled “Physician Leadership in Shaping the Future of Health Care in America.” Other AMA areas of advocacy include health equity, parity for mental health disorders and strengthening the diversity of the medical school pipeline, she noted.
“Are we getting the results? Is anybody evaluating that? What’s working, what’s not working and where do we need to improve?” she said in addressing those issues in the interview.
Harris explored solutions by viewing Center of Excellence poster presentations by Baylor undergraduates, post-baccalaureate students, medical students, clinical fellows and junior faculty.
According to her AMA biography, the organization’s new president is a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association who continues in private practice and currently consults with both public and private organizations on health service delivery and emerging trends in practice and health policy. In addition, she is an adjunct assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and an adjunct clinical assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Morehouse School of Medicine.
As the 174th president of the AMA, Harris serves close to 250,000 members.
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