At AMA, for the first time, 3 presidents—past, present and future—are all women

For the first time in the American Medical Association’s (AMA's) history, women are occupying three roles: its past, present and future presidents.

It’s the first time the country’s largest physician organization has had three female presidents in succession, and, to kick off Women in Medicine Month, the AMA brought them together Wednesday in a discussion broadcast live on Facebook.

“We are a very visible representation of how much the American Medical Association has changed. It’s not white men with white hair who are making the decisions,” said Susan Bailey, M.D., the AMA’s president-elect who will take over as president next year.

She was joined for the broadcast by current president Patrice Harris, M.D., and immediate-past president Barbara McAneny, M.D., to talk about the changing face of medicine, where women currently make up the majority in U.S. medical schools. They were joined by another woman, Aletha Maybank, M.D., the AMA’s first chief health equity officer, who moderated the conversation.

Both Harris and Maybank are African American, and Harris made history in her own right as the first African-American woman elected as president of the AMA.

“It’s really a historic time for the American Medical Association,” said Maybank, who has been charged with developing the AMA’s Center for Health Equity, asking the three doctors how it feels having three consecutive women elected to head the organization. She said all three are regarded as trailblazers, advocates and leaders.

“I coined the term ‘we three,’” said Harris. “I think it’s really an important time for us to be visible evidence of the progress that we’re making and visible evidence that others can aspire to positions of leadership and finally, visible evidence that the AMA is leading the charge.”

During speaking engagements, Harris shares a photo taken of the three AMA presidents at the group’s annual meeting in June, she said, and young women medical students and residents often come up to her and tell her how important it is to see the women leaders.

“It’s great to be sending a signal that says women in leadership are now part of the mainstream,” said McAneny. “I look forward to the day when we are not women leaders, but just leaders.”

“I hope we send a message to young women that the AMA is at the forefront of this level of advocacy of making sure all women and all doctors have a voice,” she said.

It’s important when looking for role models to see someone who looks like you, she said. “It empowers people.”

Bailey said it was also important to recognize that the three doctors are the fourth, fifth and sixth female presidents out of the 175 presidents in the history of the AMA. “So we’re getting started, but we have to make sure we maintain this momentum, and this isn’t just one unique point in time. We’ve got to make sure it lasts,” she said.

While women are making gains in healthcare leadership, Harris said there are times she is the only woman, or one of a few women, in the room. Bailey said she when she joined the AMA’s house of delegates there were only two women in the group.

RELATED: In a healthcare industry first, more women than men enrolled in medical school in 2017

Their advice to young women? Bailey urged them to join organizations where they can get involved. McAneny said young women need to figure out issues that are important to them, do their homework, present some solutions and try to stay off the front page of The New York Times.

But if you end up there, “make sure your position is defensible,” said Harris. She also advised young women to be authentic, know their true selves and trust their inner voices.

And what would they tell male leaders? “Stop trying to make decisions about how we live in our own bodies,” said McAneny. In June, the AMA filed a lawsuit over a pair of North Dakota laws it says will force physicians to give false information about abortion to patients, saying the move is necessary to protect the patient-physician relationship.

Harris said it’s time to recognize that women and men have shared goals. “It’s not a competition … we can both win,” said Harris.

What gives them hope for the future? “The altruism and creativity of doctors,” said Bailey.

“The patient-physician relationship is what keeps me going,” said McAneny. Harris agreed. “Our patients give us hope,” she said, adding doctors need to be patients' champions.

And it’s not only the AMA that is electing female leaders. Along with Harris, two other Georgia doctors are poised to take over top leadership spots at prominent national physician organizations. Jacqueline Fincher, M.D., an internist, will become president of the American College of Physicians, and Sally Goza, M.D., will become president of the American Academy of Pediatrics next year.

Their election comes at the same time 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%).