Opinion

The first black woman to lead the AMA is headed to Fort Worth. Here’s what she’ll say

Dr. Patrice Harris, an Atlanta psychiatrist, is the first black woman to lead the American Medical Association.
Dr. Patrice Harris, an Atlanta psychiatrist, is the first black woman to lead the American Medical Association. Courtesy of the American Medical Association

Dr. Patrice Harris was sworn in this week as the first black woman to be president of the American Medical Association. Harris, a psychiatrist based in Atlanta, will speak Saturday at the annual luncheon of the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce. Individual tickets remain available on the group’s website.

On Thursday, Harris discussed her plans to lead the physicians group and address disparities in health care. (Questions and answers are edited for clarity and length.)

What topics do you plan to cover in your speech?

The overall priorities and work of the AMA and our commitment to improving health outcomes. Also, my specific priorities as president — certainly one is health equity, and I’ll also continue to lead on the opioid epidemic.

You may have heard that Fort Worth has the ZIP code where residents have the shortest life expectancy in Texas, according to a recent study. What connections do you see between poverty and poor health?

There are many determinants of health, including whether someone has access to a physician or access to hospital care. We know there are many more determinants, often referred to as social determinants — poverty, whether someone has housing, employment, educational attainment.

ZIP codes are an important issue. We’re studying this in Atlanta, thinking about the same thing. Your ZIP code can help determine your health, with issues such as poverty, affordable housing, educational attainment. Ten or 25 miles away, life expectancy could be 10 to 20 years different.

You have a background as a public health official. What do county officials and other leaders need to do to improve health outcomes, especially for underprivileged communities?

Health is an all-in prospect. It’s important that everyone work in partnership to improve it — local hospitals, physicians and public health officials must all work together to address health inequities and disparities. The AMA has policies that address these issues, but it’s important for those who set policy on the state and local levels to be involved. In Atlanta, we’re starting school-based clinics — it’s an exciting opportunity to improve access to care. We must always consider that what may work in one county may not work in another, so it’s very important for local communities to work together.

What’s your assessment of health care in Texas and what are some of the top issues that need addressing?

Poverty is a huge issue. The differences in wealth and educational attainment, access to jobs and employment are consistent across the country. The details and who’s affected may be different. And past discriminatory practices play into this — that’s another determinant of health. It’s important to look at it from the local level and involve the community.

For you, what does it mean to be the first black woman to lead the AMA?

It’s an honor and a privilege to break this barrier, but also a responsibility. I hope young women and boys from communities of color can see tangible evidence that they can aspire to be physicians but also aspire to lead a group like the AMA. I want to be a role model. Others have said, ‘If you can see it, you can believe it,’ and I want to inspire others to careers in medicine and to attain leadership in any organization or system they work in.

Also, with our current president-elect — Dr. Susan Bailey, an allergist from Fort Worth — for the first time in AMA history, we’ll have three women presidents in succession.

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