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By Sara Berg

Three months ago, all Americans’ lives were upended by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has sickened more than 1.7 million cases and killed over 100,000 in the U.S.

During one of the most consequential terms in AMA presidential history, Patrice A. Harris, MD, MA, has given voice to the concerns of physicians and the challenges faced by patients both inside and outside of the exam room.

At her inauguration last year in Chicago, Dr. Harris’ family joined her in celebration. They received such a warm welcome from the AMA House of Delegates that one cousin exclaimed, “I love the AMA.”

“But unfortunately, as we have seen … these same family members are not safe to jog, or bird-watch, or drive, or even breathe,” said Dr. Harris during the 2020 AMA Special Meeting, an abbreviated virtual session held in place of the in-person AMA Annual Meeting due to Covid-19.

“I do have hope, however, but that hope is up to us … America’s physicians and the AMA, to demonstrate how to understand more, and to fear less — to be the voices our country can trust in this time of trial, and to lead on action to move us forward in this difficult, perilous time.”

Physicians have matched the moment

“Our country — indeed our world — is being challenged as never before. Challenged by a novel virus for which there is not yet a specific treatment or vaccine,” said Dr. Harris, adding that “physicians are challenged by a lack of resources,” personal protective equipment (PPE), “a political climate that is highly polarized” and “by the rampant spread of misinformation and disinformation.”

“In November, I gave a speech about physicians matching the moment and continuing to earn public confidence in an era of mistrust,” she said. “I spoke about how patients still trust us, their physicians, even though they’ve lost trust in other institutions and professions.

“I spoke about competency, truth-telling, compassion and purpose — the elements of trust — noting that in this era of distrust, the AMA is just what the doctor ordered,” said Dr. Harris. “Little did any of us realize at the time how dramatically we would be put to the test. But ‘match the moment’ we have.”

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“Physicians are working long hours in offices and hospitals; sleeping in their basements or hotels so they do not infect family members; working overtime to develop vaccines and treatments; countering the endless false narratives circulating across media channels; and reopening medical practices so we can meet the postponed health needs of our patients,” said Dr. Harris.

In response, the AMA pressured Congress and the administration to accelerate production of PPE, testing and ventilators. Additionally, the AMA lobbied for regulatory changes to allow for telemedicine and fought for financial support for small and independent physician practices.

“We have fought for freedom of speech so physicians can raise concerns about the lack of resources without fear of retribution or punishment,” said Dr. Harris. “We have used our national platform to call on leaders to focus on science and evidence in all decision-making.

“And it is those acts of competence, truth-telling, compassion, and purpose that will ultimately lead us through this pandemic,” she said.

AMA mission brought to life 

“One of the many privileges afforded the president of our AMA is to travel the world, or, to quote the illustrious Dr. Seuss, to ‘go off to great places,’” said Dr. Harris. “Along the way, in those great places, I have met and been inspired by physicians and trainees whose work brings our AMA mission to life.”

She met a family physician practicing in a remote part of Alaska and a young doctor from Pennsylvania who is working to ensure equitable treatment for patients with substance-use disorders. She also met an African American medical student in Illinois who was the first in her family to go to college.

It is through her travels across the country that Dr. Harris, a psychiatrist in Atlanta, has seen just how much the AMA’s mission matters.

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While Dr. Harris’ tenure as president is ending, she pledged that her work will not. She plans to continue being a voice for patients and physicians across the country; to work to amplify the importance of mental health and the health impacts of trauma. Additionally, she will work “to achieve equity and justice within the walls of our exam rooms, the health delivery system, the halls of Congress and our justice system.”

Dr. Harris said she will be guided by the direction of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final Sunday sermon: “to remain awake through a great revolution.”

“As I speak to you for the last time as president of the American Medical Association,” Dr. Harris said, “please know that this ‘psychiatrist is in.’”