When Patrice Harris, MD, MA, was growing up in rural West Virginia, she wanted to be a pediatrician. But there was no role model in her family who had been to medical school ... no one to give advice on how to pursue a medical career ... and women of color were not encouraged to pursue careers in the medical field.
But she persisted. At first Harris looked at becoming a medical technician and then was steered by a counselor and her family toward a career in nursing. It was discouraging, she said. While nursing is a noble profession, it was not what she wanted. She earned her undergraduate in psychology and master's degrees in counseling psychology from West Virginia University ... and ultimately her medical degree in 1992.
And in June, she was sworn in as the 174th president of the American Medical Association, the first African American woman to hold the position in the country's oldest medical organization of physicians.
"It's a privilege to be the first," Harris said during an interview at the 44th annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in Miami, Fla. "I consider the opportunity (to be president) to be evidence that women can aspire to leadership. You can be a physician, and you can be a leader. It is a big responsibility, and part of my job is to make sure I'm not the last."
Harris was also a panelist at the conference during a 90-minute session exploring health inequities. Access to healthcare is a major issue that the AMA is looking at, she said. "We want to get to equity, but you have to look at other issues as well to see how they are connected to the patient getting healthcare. We need to look at housing, transportation, and whether or not the neighborhood of the patient is a food desert."
She added, "We want people to have meaningful, affordable healthcare. We need to build on what we have. Ninety percent of people in this country are insured."
The AMA is also seeing an increasing number of suicides in communities of color, Harris said. She works primarily with children up to ages 19, and bullying remains a huge issue. She said non-educational screen time needs to be limited for young people. In today's world, when children make a mistake, everyone knows about it, she pointed out, adding that can lead to major problems for children.
Harris also discussed where the AMA stands on the opioid crisis and gun violence. "Mass shootings do not equate to mental illness," she stated. "Hatred is not a mental illness." And studies show people with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violence rather than the perpetrators, she said.
Harris also noted, science and data do not support that playing video games leads to mass shootings. The AMA recommends background checks and more research on gun violence and the effect on families and communities. Harris added, the Dickey amendment passed by Congress put a damper on funding research and said the CDC needs funding to learn more about what works regarding gun violence. The AMA also supports laws passed by several states allowing family members to temporarily remove guns from someone who may be at risk as a danger to themselves or others.
Harris is well known for her work on the opioid crisis. She chairs the AMA's Opioid Task Force, which was established in 2014. During her year in office, she said she would like to amplify the work already occurring in that area. "Prescriptions have decreased, but deaths have increased. That is related to lethal doses of illicit fentanyl and heroin being in the marketplace," she said.
"We are laser-focused on treatment. We also need to increase treatment opportunities. The infrastructure needs funding, and we need to eliminate barriers to people getting treatment.
"And insurers need to pay for on coverage," she continued. "Treatment for opioid abuse should be on par with other diseases. In Pennsylvania, insurers have eliminated prior authorization for patients who need this therapy. Other states need to look at it, also."
Access to healthcare for those living in rural communities is also of great concern. "A larger segment of the population is uninsured for those living in rural areas. What helps now is having Medicaid. The hospital can be reimbursed," she pointed out, although not every state expanded their Medicaid population under the Affordable Care Act. "Transportation can be an issue; telehealth can help but it has to be used appropriately."
In addition to spreading the word about the AMA's work, Harris said she will be working to improve the health of the nation. She also wants to bring to the forefront the importance of mental health care into the overall health of an individual. She would also like to raise awareness of about the lifelong adverse impact childhood trauma can have on a person. To get the best outcomes for healthcare, Harris said it is important to have a relationship with your doctor and make sure your records follow you and they are up to date.
On the professional side, Harris said she will continue to talk about health equity and also look at the diversity of the physician workforce. "We need more diversity in more specialties," she added. "For example, black men do better when they have physicians that look like them." She also wants to make sure all physician voices are heard. "Physicians have an important role in helping to shape policy," she said pointing to the work of the AMA House of Delegates, which advocates on behalf of physicians and their patients at the federal and state levels.
As for what advice Harris would offer to young people interested in pursuing a medical career, she noted: "Follow that dream, follow that goal, work hard where you are. Make sure you have a good science background but also a diverse background so you understand the broader context of healthcare. You need to have good grades in history, philosophy, the social sciences."
Harris added, "We older folks have to make sure we create an environment for young people to succeed. We have to make sure opportunities are available for them."
AMA Opioid Task Force Progress Report PDF