5 physicians who made headlines in 2018 (and who you’ll want to watch in the year ahead)

The spotlight was on healthcare throughout 2018 and that put a number of physicians in the headlines.

Who has been making waves this year? 

We took a look at five of the doctors who have been in the news and who you’ll want to keep an eye on in 2019:

Kim Schrier, M.D.

A pediatrician from Issaquah, Washington, Schrier made history in November as the first female physician elected to Congress. She’s also the first pediatrician to serve in Congress.

Kim Schrier
Kim Schrier, M.D.
(Courtesy of Schrier campaign)

She was elected in Washington's 8th Congressional District. Her win was also historical since it was the first time a Democrat was elected to the seat that has been held only by Republicans. 

“This is incredible,” she said, of her election. “We've never had a Democrat in this seat. We also don’t have any women doctors in Congress until right now. So, we're making history in a couple ways—one by just putting a Democrat in this particular district, but now we have a woman doctor in the House, and that's a really critical missing voice.”

With Schrier's election, there are now 15 physicians serving in Congress. Schrier, 50, entered the race in Washington last August and said she was compelled to run after the Republican-led effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In a Twitter post, she said the election results show voters want a new voice in Congress, who will take on special interests, lower prescription drug costs and protect women's reproductive rights.

Schrier framed her candidacy around healthcare issues, wore her doctor’s white coat in her election ads and shared her personal stories as a patient, parent, and physician. Schrier has Type 1 diabetes and said a repeal of the ACA would directly affect patients like herself, who have a pre-existing condition.

Since the election, she’s been busy, including speaking with doctors across the country who are thinking of running for office at a candidate workshop hosted by physician specialty organizations. On Twitter, Schrier said her advice was for interested doctors to jump in and run. She said she won her race, “not in spite of being a doctor, but because I am a doctor.”

RELATED: Washington doctor makes history with election to Congress; all incumbent docs re-elected

Schrier hopes to bring a unique voice when topics such as healthcare, pharmaceuticals and prescription drugs arise in the next Congress. On Twitter, she said she will support caregivers and pass reform that fixes the healthcare system for patients and providers. She says she is committed to gun safety reform and is concerned about the mental health impacts of what she calls the gun violence epidemic.

Atul Gawande, M.D.

Atul Gawande was already a big name in the medical field. But his appointment in June to lead the healthcare venture formed by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase was arguably one of the biggest healthcare stories of 2018.

The choice of Gawande, a widely recognized surgeon, public health researcher, and writer of four New York Times bestsellers, as CEO of the new company was touted by many who are waiting to see what new ideas he brings to the job. Both Gawande and the company promise to be innovators.

But just as the leaders of the companies that formed the new venture have warned it is a long-term endeavor, Gawande has said it could be a decade before the companies see a measurable impact.

Atul Gawande
Atul Gawande, M.D.
(Amar Karodkar/CC BY-SA 4.0)

“I’ll only say it is a long target and I'm lucky to have an expectation that we’re going to take on the kinds of problems I’m talking about over the next decade,” he said. “It’ll be gradual progress and there won’t be instant solutions.”

Gawande began serving as head of the new company, which will be headquartered in Boston, in July. Gawande, who is a staff writer for the New Yorker, practices general and endocrine surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and is professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School. He is also founding executive director of the health systems innovation center, Ariadne Labs.

“I have devoted my public health career to building scalable solutions for better healthcare delivery that are saving lives, reducing suffering and eliminating wasteful spending both in the U.S. and across the world," Gawande said in a statement at the time of his appointment. "Now I have the backing of these remarkable organizations to pursue this mission with even greater impact for more than a million people, and in doing so incubate better models of care for all."

Joseph Sakran, M.D.

Sakran brings a unique voice to the debate over gun violence. He is both a survivor of gun violence, having been shot in the throat as a teenager after a fight broke out in the park where he was hanging out, and he is a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where he saves lives.

Sakran started the Twitter hashtag #thisisourlane in November, launching a movement of physicians calling for political action to stop gun violence. The campaign was a response to a statement from the National Rifle Association on Twitter telling “self-important, anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane” and stop pushing for gun control. That sparked frustration from Sakran and others who wondered how doctors could not be part of the solution to this complex problem.

Joseph Sakran
Joseph Sakrin, M.D. (Johns Hopkins)

The #thisisourlane hashtag quickly gained more than 25,000 followers and became a kind of rallying cry for doctors. Healthcare providers shared their own stories of handling gunshot wounds and gruesome photos of their scrubs soaked in blood. 

“I think it shows a lack of insight and a lack of understanding of how complex a problem we are dealing with, especially considering the fact that the medical community has tried to collaborate with the NRA," Sakran said, in an interview with Fierce Healthcare. "It drives this false narrative and this polarization that continues to divide us as Americans because the reality is, as Americans, we have more in common than we do that divides us."

The call for doctors to butt out of the discussion had just the opposite effect. “It really has united healthcare professionals,” Sakran said. “As the medical community, we refuse to just sort of sit by and not be part of the solution."

Sakran has continued to be an outspoken member of the medical community when it comes to the issue of gun control. For instance, in the wake of a shooting in a Chicago hospital that left a doctor dead, he was among firearm safety advocates from the medical community calling on Congress to expand universal background checks and free up federal funding for gun violence research.

A victim of gun violence at 17, Sakran says the day he was shot changed his life. “The worst kind of day of my life also changed my whole outlook because it inspired me to go into medicine, it inspired me to become a trauma surgeon.”

Sakran said caring for patients who come into emergency rooms after being shot take a toll on healthcare providers. But it is also an opportunity to change the status quo.

Patrice A. Harris, M.D.

Harris is another woman who made history this year. She is the first African-American woman elected as president of the American Medical Association (AMA), the country’s largest physician organization.

Harris, an Atlanta-based psychiatrist, is currently the organization’s president-elect and will take over as the 174th president of the AMA starting in June 2019. She was elected at the annual meeting of the AMA House of Delegates last summer.

Patrice Harris
Patrice A. Harris, M.D.
(American Medical Association)

She has built her medical career around her interest in the well-being of children, mental health and public health.

A private practicing physician, Harris has worked in the field of mental health as a public health administrator and a medical society lobbyist. “I will bring the many aspects of who I am to the office,” she told Fierce Healthcare in an interview.  

She said she never imagined growing up in the small town of Bluefield, West Virginia—the daughter of a railroad worker and a teacher—that she would someday serve as president of the AMA.

As a psychiatrist, Harris said she hopes to be a voice for the need for more mental healthcare services, the need for early interventions—particularly for children—and the need to integrate mental health into traditional healthcare.

Harris is the fifth woman and the second African-American to be elected to the position of AMA president. “What is critical is to make sure I’m not the last,” she said.



Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D.

Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician, professor and public health advocate, first landed in the headlines in 2015 when she sounded the alarm about children in Flint, Michigan having elevated levels of lead in their blood as a result of the region’s contaminated water. She’s been there ever since.

Today, Hanna-Attisha, a doctor at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint, is a voice encouraging other doctors to take on important issues that impact their patients.

Her public journey began at a press conference at Flint's Hurley Medical Center, when she presented her research that revealed that Flint children's blood lead levels doubled after the water was switched from the Detroit River to the Flint River in April 2014.

Mona Hatta-Attisha
Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D.
(Michigan State University)

Not everyone was happy with her. While public health officials lauded her for putting out her research, political figures chastised her for stepping outside a physician’s typical role.  

“I went into healthcare and pediatrics not just to treat ear infections but to treat injustices and inequalities,” she told an audience at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s National Forum on Quality Improvement in Healthcare, where she was a panelist in a session featuring women who are leading the charge on advocating for issues of social justice. 

RELATED: IHI 2018How one pediatrician found herself at the center of Flint’s water crisis 

Hanna-Attisha wrote a book, What the Eyes Don’t See, her first-hand account of the Flint water crisis, which was released in June. A company bought the book rights to make a movie.

She is now the director of an initiative to mitigate the impact of the water crisis. She said she shares her story and the story of Flint because physicians need to realize that they can, and should, play a key role in social justice—even if that’s not something they traditionally wade into. Physicians have a front-line look at how socioeconomic factors, like Flint’s water, impact their patients and thus make an effective conduit for change. Pushing through the fear of speaking out or stepping out of line can have a huge impact, she said. 

“We all implicitly took that oath, no matter who we are or what we do,” Hanna-Attisha said. “It is our very civic and human responsibility.”