Dr. Patrice Harris on How to Learn and Move Forward – Loralyn Mears PhD

Back in June, Collision From Home ended up being hosted from living rooms and kitchens around the world instead of in downtown Toronto, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of its participants. Nor did it mar the quality of the line-up. Grit Daily News was a member of the media had the honor of speaking with Dr. Patrice Harris, the first Black woman president (and now Immediate Past President) of the American Medical Association (AMA) in its history since forming back in 1847. Months have passed since our interview and much has changed in our country, politically, economically and so on, but one thing is clear: more change is needed.

Grit Daily: Tell us a little about your backstory and childhood that prepared you for all that you’ve accomplished.

Dr. Patrice Harris: I grew up in West Virginia in a small town. I have wanted to be a physician since the 8th grade. My parents always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, but others discouraged me on the idea. In fact, one college counsellor told me to “give it up” and move onto something else. That made me even more determined.

GD: How has being elected 2019 President of AMA changed you?

PH: I don’t believe it changed me. Each president brings their own unique lens and expertise into the office. The presidency has allowed me to not only amplify the strategic priorities of the AMA but to bring my unique lens and vision to those priorities. Improving the lives of children has been my life-long passion and that’s what I brought into the role. As a child psychiatrist, I wanted to elevate the importance of mental health, the need for diversity of the physician workforce, the importance of equity and the need of society to address childhood trauma. Dr. Marcus Welby was my original inspiration to become a physician; he took care of his patients, but he also had a platform to improve community and family. The idea of having a larger platform to do my work made becoming a doctor even more appealing. I never dreamed that I would be the president of AMA. But, it’s been wonderful to be that tangible representation for young girls and for Black girls and boys.

Dr. Patrice Harris
Immediate Past-President AMA

GD: Has the AMA presidency changed your clinical practice?

PH: It does enrich your practice because you hear from physicians across the country. Learning about the challenges that doctors are facing and how those challenges are different across specialties and geographies broadens your thinking. A 20-plus year history of being involved with the AMA on different levels has made me a better doctor.  

GD: How will your tenure affect those who will follow you?

PH: Each president has their own set of unique challenges during their tenure. We don’t exist in a bubble; the challenge of a pandemic is certainly unique and led to my presidency being of the most consequential presidencies in AMA history. Issues around health equity, COVID, police brutality and mental health has made for a confluence of events that will alter the path forward for health and healthcare in this country. As a trusted source of information, the AMA plays a key leadership role on the way forward.

GD: You were inaugurated as president of the AMA in June 2019, how long does your term continue?

PH: The AMA presidency is a one-year term, and my term ended this past June. I will serve as Immediate Past President until June 2021. Here’s another fact: last year was a monumental year for the AMA in terms of the legacy of women and the presidency. While I was holding office as the first Black woman president, I was flanked by women who were holding both the President-Elect and Past-President roles. That was a first, too!

GD: Are people approaching you differently given recent events, specifically the Black Lives Matter protests?

PH: One year ago, I was on the cover of Atlanta Magazine’s July 2019 issue immediately following my inauguration. it was an interesting thing to be recognized in the grocery store. Last year, with three women holding concurrent presidencies, we had a lot of fun traveling on behalf of the AMA. At the World Medical Association last year in Tblisi, Georgia, the AMA delegation definitely received special attention and together, we made an impact. At a meeting in Washington, DC, we were being served brunch by an African American young man. Someone in our group told our server that I was the first Black woman president of the AMA; he was so excited, and he asked to take a photo with me. It’s moments like that that inspire. During my final address as President, I showed a picture of the men in my family dressed their tuxedos who came to my inauguration. I highlighted that while they had been safe in that ballroom in Chicago, they were not always safe beyond the walls of that celebration.    

GD: How have you changed the AMA?

PH: Legacy is inspiration; if you can see it, you can believe it. What’s most important is that I’m not the last Black president! I hope that my presidency is recognized as being one of authenticity and associated with the importance of speaking truth to power.

GD: How has COVID changed the doctors within the AMA?

PH: Physicians don’t run away from crises. In fact, we’re trained to run towards them. This was true before COVID and it will be true long after. The pandemic has changed our health ecosystem. Physicians were always ready to do the work, but we had to raise our voices when we didn’t have enough PPE and those on the frontlines were denied access to testing.

GD: How effective is the AMA newsletter regarding communication? Do you want to change how you connect with your members?

PH: Digital communication is critical, and the AMA has embraced and will continue to engage more on digital platforms. When I traveled around the country on behalf of the AMA last year, a common refrain from the audiences that I addressed was, “I didn’t realize that the AMA was doing all that.” We are very active, constantly growing and evolving to meet shifting needs and slowly making more people aware of what we’re doing.   

GD: How do you leverage your psychiatry training to inform your leadership style and relationships?

PH:   Active listening and comfort with and navigating difficult conversations have definitely informed my leadership style and skillset

GD: Has your path forward ever been interrupted, and, if so, how did you overcome the challenge?

PH: Yes, there have been some challenges. I look back and in general I move forward without regrets because I’ve learned from every twist and turn, and every up and down. Earlier, I mentioned that a college counselor discouraged me from going to medical school: he advised me to go to nursing school instead. I knew what I wanted but I didn’t know how to get there. During the nursing school orientation, I had an epiphany; I was going to have to figure things out on my own and tune out the noise. After I completed my master’s, I worked for the university on a diversity and equity effort as a special assistant and later then took a full-time role in student affairs. Only then did I enter medical school where I was the only African American in the college. My class just held a reunion and it was incredible, they’re an amazing tribe who supported me through moments of isolation when I was the only Black in the room. Rather than get weighted down by it, I chose to learn from each of those trials and failures and to dig in to find the resolve that I needed to move passed them. You have to believe that if you work at something, you will make it happen. Since then, I’ve given a few commencement addresses, including at my alma mater, Howard University. It boils down to “embracing the yuck – you can learn a lot from those yucky times.”

GD: What do you think is holding women back (POC in particular) from being wildly successful?

PH: Systemic issues. Long-standing structural Barriers. Implicit and explicit biases. An unwillingness to examine long standing structures and narratives. If we are going to transform, we are going to have to confront all these issues.  

GD: You have a powerful platform, what message do you want to get out?

PH: Dream big. Be authentic and true to yourself. Be strategic. Speak your truth to power.  

GD: What’s the one thing that you wish people knew about you?

PH: They know that I’m authentic and committed. And that I fight for the issues that matter. But they don’t know that I’m feistier than people think! That’s the most PG version of that description.  J

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