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Dr. Patrice Harris: A steady voice of leadership during a deadly pandemic

Harris is the first African American woman to serve as president of the American Medical Association.
Patrice Harris
Dr. Patrice Harris, President, American Medical Association.Courtesy Dr. Patrice Harris

As a child growing up in West Virginia, Dr. Patrice Harris was inspired by the TV show “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” about a small town physician with a comforting bedside manner. When Harris shared aspirations of following the fictional character’s path as a profession, a high school counselor told her to consider nursing.

That affront traveled with Harris through medical school at the University of West Virginia, where she was the only African American in her class; during her psychiatry residency as the only black female at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta; and now, as the first African American female president of the American Medical Association during a global pandemic.

“What I saw through the eyes of a little girl watching ‘Marcus Welby’ was an opportunity to affect change, to help people,” Harris told NBC News. “He cared about people inside the exam room and outside of it. That’s what I wanted to do. I have had to endure all the micro-insults on the journey.”

Serving as the face and leader of the largest and most respected organization of physicians in the United States—during the COVID-19 crisis, no less—was a country mile from watching a television show and dreaming in Bluefield, West Virginia. But Harris, whose presidency ended this week, handled it with grace, according to health experts.

“She is a top-notch individual that’s had the opportunity to demonstrate it,” Dr. John Maupin, the former president of the Morehouse School of Medicine and Meharry Medical College, two historically black health institutions. “And now people are showing her the respect for that. She’s doing an admirable job of being the spokesperson, a steady voice and presence for the AMA during a very critical time with COVID-19, a time when you need strength.”

Today, there are more than 1.6 million cases of coronavirus across the United States and more than 100,000 deaths associated with the disease.

Still, Harris’ pleasant demeanor and ever-present smile belie her tough resolve, much of it acquired during her path as a rare person of color and a black woman in med school. She has been called a tireless worker with a commitment to creating a culture of fairness within the organization and profession.

She said she sees an additional obligation beyond the day-to-day responsibilities of the AMA, although she considers those duties paramount to a successful term, particularly during the coronavirus siege.

“My role as the spokesman of the AMA is to make sure we are leading and following the data and the science,” she said. “We want to be a credible source of information while making sure we are a source of support.

“The message of the AMA is patience and health over politics. We’ve stressed for all elected officials to allow the science and public health officials to guide us through this pandemic.”

Her presence in such a critical and lofty position sends a separate message, and a self-imposed extra burden, she said.

“My responsibility is not about being the first African American woman president of the American Medical Association,” she said. “My responsibility is to not be the last.”

And so, Harris, who was voted into the position by the AMA’s House of Delegates, understands her performance on the job could determine the chances of another African American woman reaching the same plateau. So it’s simple: She can’t mess up.

“Once her presidency is over, what happens?” asked Dr. Aletha Maybank, the chief equity officer of the AMA’s Center for Health Equity. “It will demonstrate if AMA as a body is committed to equity. Part of their commitment will be through passing policy, which Dr. Harris was supported to have an organizational unit that would focus exclusively on equity and making sure it was embedded in policy, practice and performance.”

Harris has been a staunch supporter of the AMA’s Center for Health Equity, which was established last year to institute sustainable health equity practices, processes, innovation and organizational performance and outcomes.

“Diversity and inclusion are important in advancing equity,” said Maybank, who has worked alongside Harris for a year. “But diversity without power can feel challenging and exhausting and not meaningful to advancing equity in the long run. So, (it’s important to have) more of a foundational role, having structure and policy, culture, programs and in all that we do have models that are shifting the lines toward equity.”

Harris has worked hard to balance heading the AMA and advocating for change. She is relentless about the importance of diversity and inclusion and points to blatant health care inequities that have come to the forefront during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Prior to the outbreak, Harris traveled the world on behalf of the AMA—and had international trips canceled because of stay-at-home orders. Her mission beyond the obvious was to be “a visible and tangible representation of what you can be,” especially to young African American women.

“I didn’t meet my first in-the-flesh inspiration until I was in med school,” she said. “I encountered barriers along my 25-year journey that African American women do. Med school was very lonely for me. I was the only African American. It wasn’t much different during my residency.

“But here I am. Elections for president of the AMA are hard-fought, as they should be, and hard won.”

Harris’ term ends in June. She says she will return to s her private practice, teach at Emory and support policies around equity to bridge the gross health care disparities that affect African American communities.

“I will continue my advocacy for the integration of mental health into overall health, the development of a health system where everyone has an equitable opportunity for optimal health and ensuring resources and systems are addressing issues around childhood trauma and early socio-emotional health,” she said.

Harris will leave with the AMA a historic and inspirational legacy of governance during an unparalleled time in modern history.

“It’s important that the AMA have a voice from people of color,” Maupin said, adding that having Harris “at the helm of leadership speaks loudly to her excellence and shows the world that we have people with the capabilities and who should be leading and deserve to lead.”