As more women join the U.S. physician workforce, three female doctors from Georgia are poised to take over top leadership spots at prominent national physician organizations.
The trio of physicians will soon head up the American Medical Association (AMA), the American College of Physicians (ACP) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Patrice Harris, M.D., a psychiatrist from Atlanta, will become the next president of the AMA, the country’s largest physician organization, when she is inaugurated at the group’s annual meeting in Chicago set to begin next week. She will make history as the first African American woman to head the AMA, taking over the reins from another female physician, Barbara McAneny, M.D., an oncologist from New Mexico.
“It’s an exciting time to be a doctor—and a female doctor—in the state of Georgia,” Harris said in an email to FierceHealthcare.
Jacqueline Fincher, M.D., an internist who practices in the small town of Thomson, will head up the ACP and said in an interview with FierceHealthcare she hopes the three leaders will inspire other female physicians to take leadership roles.
“I think it definitely empowers all of our women physicians. So many of us have dealt with sexism—subtle or overt—along the way. Less so now because we are much more conscious of that. When women see other women take on leadership roles, they think, ‘well, gosh if she can do it, I can do it’,” Fincher said.
Sally Goza, M.D., a pediatrician from Fayetteville, will become president of the AAP. As for three women from Georgia assuming leadership roles, “there’s no explaining that. It’s timing, I guess. Someone said, 'What’s in the water in Georgia?'," she joked in an interview.
Their election comes at the same time that more women than ever are becoming doctors. The Association of American Medical Colleges reported in 2017 that for the first time, women made up the majority (50.7%) of those enrolling in medical schools, a trend that continued in 2018 with an even larger percentage (51.6%).
Harris says more female leaders reflects diversity
The election of the three Georgia women reflects a more diverse physician workforce, said Harris.
“The profession is changing for the better in that the physician community is becoming more diverse and beginning to reflect the diversity of the patients they serve,” she said, citing the fact women now represent 50% of the country’s medical students. “That’s a positive step forward and has the potential to lead to better outcomes for patients.”
However, that’s only the beginning, said Harris, who hopes the three female physician leaders will inspire other women to take on leadership roles in medicine. “Women are still far underrepresented in leadership roles in medicine and there’s much more progress to be made. I hope that seeing me and my two colleagues in leadership roles will not only inspire young women to pursue a career in medicine but recognize that being a leader in medicine is within their reach,” she said.
Fincher says she hopes to empower other women
It’s more than a coincidence that three women from Georgia have stepped up to take leadership roles in national organizations, says Fincher, who will become the next president of the ACP, the national organization of internists, next April.
“We grow 'em well down here in Georgia. We grow 'steel magnolias'” she joked. All three doctors are members of the Medical Association of Georgia and have known each other for more than 20 years.
“I don’t think it’s an accident, honestly. Georgia is a really unique state,” Fincher said. Many of the women doctors educated in Georgia stay in the state, and their numbers are increasing. “I think women in Georgia have kind of leaned in if you will, and opportunities have presented themselves.”
Like Harris, she welcomes diversity in the medical field and the country. “It’s having those role models that look like us,” she said.
She never anticipated when she started out in medicine she would be at this point in her career, taking on a national role. “Not in a million years. I just knew I wanted to be a doctor since I was seven-years-old,” she said. She grew up in Atlanta where her father was an obstetrician-gynecologist in private practice.
Fincher is a doctor at the Center for Primary Care McDuffie in Thomson, a mostly rural area of east Georgia, a community of 7,000 people where she has practiced for 30 years. She moved to Thomson because that is where her husband, James Lemley, M.D., who she met in medical school, was from.
She was the first full-time woman doctor practicing there when the couple moved to Thomson in 1988. People commonly thought she must be an obstetrician-gynecologist, she said.
Medicine runs in the family. Pincher’s daughter is a medical resident in pediatrics and will be a third-generation doctor in the family, as Lemley’s father was also a doctor who started the practice in 1961.
Fincher thinks physician organizations can make a difference. “There are issues and battles we fight every day on behalf of our patients and on behalf of our profession. Just one person complaining isn’t going to make any changes. It’s only when you can be a part of a bigger group that has lots of really good ideas and lots of good perspectives that you can develop policy that speaks in volume to government, to payers, to regulators and the public in general,” she said.
Fincher isn’t the first woman to serve as president of the ACP, but next year will be the first time women have served as both president and chairman of the board of regents. The ACP, the largest physician specialty organization in the country, has 154,000 members, about 37% of them women.
She hopes to put more focus on primary care, which accounts for a fraction of overall Medicare spending. “We’re spending all the money on technology on the back end when we need to be beefing up primary care and letting internal medicine doctors spend more time with patients,” she said. That can make a big difference in the cost of care.
She also wants to focus on women’s health, physician compensation, the need for greater transparency and the impact of climate change on health. She said she is a supporter of universal access to healthcare, but not in favor of "Medicare for All."
“Universal access to healthcare is critical. Everybody needs to have insurance,” she said, but she worries a single-payer system will take away choices from people.
The issue of gun violence needs to be treated as a public health issue, she said. “This is something for the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to tackle as an epidemic,” she said.
With the presidential and congressional elections in 2020, physician organizations are going to see the next year and a half as a "time to make significant inroads of influence on these issues,” she said.
Goza says women have the vision and drive to lead
While medicine, in general, is seeing more women in the field, women are the majority in the pediatric field, making up more than 60% of the workforce, says Goza, who will take over as president of the pediatrician’s organization in January 2020—the year the organization will celebrate its 90th birthday. She will lead the board of directors and be the chief spokesperson for the AAP, which has 67,000 members.
“Women are starting to feel like we can be the leaders of these organizations. We can do leadership things, as well as our practice, as well as having families and doing all the other things. It’s empowering,” she said.
“We’re starting to realize we have the vision and the drive to lead an organization and try to move it forward in doing, in my case, what’s right for children and what’s right for pediatricians. We’re trying to make sure we're moving that needle forward so that children’s lives are better and pediatricians’ lives are better. And we can keep the practice of pediatrics really vibrant going into the future as practice models change and the world changes,” she said.
Goza credits many good mentors, the partners in her practice, her family and the Georgia chapter of AAP, which encouraged women to take on leadership roles, in supporting her.
She’s a native of Fayetteville, where she has practiced as a pediatrician since 1987. She decided in high school she wanted to be a doctor and after medical school and residency came back to her hometown and joined her aunt, uncle and three cousins in a multispecialty clinic that now goes by the name of First Georgia Physician Group.
As president of the AAP, she intends to keep practicing an average of two days a week. “I feel like it will be important for me to be able to lead the Academy if I know what’s going on from the grassroots. I think it’s important to not lose track of what pediatricians are actually doing on the ground,” she said.
Issues she hopes to focus on include gun safety and gun violence prevention, as well as poverty and the health and well-being of children in the country, along with the need to make sure physicians are healthy given the high incidence of burnout. Another issue that has come to the forefront in the face of recent measles outbreaks is vaccine hesitancy.
Goza said she thinks she, Harris and Fincher can make a difference. “I think it’s going to be really exciting. I think we’ll have a great collaborative effort to really help move the needle on healthcare for all of our country,” she said.