Making history: Patrice Harris is the first African American woman elected president of the AMA

Patrice A. Harris, M.D., originally intended to become a pediatrician.

But that was before Harris did a psychiatry clerkship in her third year of medical training and discovered a new love: the human brain.

“I was always fascinated by the brain—this blob of human tissue that controls everything about the body,” she said. 

The Atlanta-based doctor went on to become a psychiatrist, building a career around the interest in the well-being of children, mental health and public health. And starting in June 2019, she will use the background to serve as the 174th president of the AMA, the country’s largest physician organization, after being elected as its new president at the annual meeting of the AMA House of Delegates last month.

patrice harris
Patrice A. Harris, M.D. (AMA)

Barbara McAneny, M.D., an oncologist from New Mexico, is now serving her one-year term as AMA president.

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 FierceHealthcare in an interview.  

Harris can also lay claim to a notable first: She is the first African-American woman elected as president of the American Medical Association.

“It is pretty cool,” she agrees, when asked about the achievement.

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.

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Leading the AMA

Harris said wants to use her voice to help improve healthcare for both patients and physicians.

The AMA has a strong foundation on which to build in moving medicine forward, she said. The group wants to ensure that physicians are at the forefront of discussions when policymakers and lawmakers make decisions about the country’s healthcare system.

Harris has served as a leader at the local, state and national levels. She is former director of Health Services for Fulton County, Georgia, which includes Atlanta, was the former president of the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association and has served on the board of the American Psychiatric Association and a member of the governing council of the AMA Women Physicians Congress. She was first elected to the AMA-Board of Trustees in June 2011.

As a psychiatrist, Harris said she hopes to be a voice for the need for more mental healthcare services, the need for early interventionsparticularly for childrenand the need to integrate mental health into traditional healthcare.

The AMA will also continue to be a partner in innovating the way the system educates the next generation of doctors, she said.

Harris has served as the chairperson of the AMA’s Opioid Task Force and will continue in that role. “For me, the task force was a perfect fit and an opportunity to demonstrate physician leadership,” she said.

The opioid epidemic has been a difficult challenge, that has required a multifaced approach, she said, but there are signs efforts to reverse the opioid problem are working. The task force reported in May that opioid prescriptions across the country have continued to drop for the fifth year in a row, doctors across the country accessed state prescription drug monitoring programs at a 122% higher rate than the previous year, the number of physicians trained and certified to treat patients with opioid use disorders increased and the overdose-reversing medication naloxone is now more accessible.

Inspiration for becoming a doctor

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.

She was inspired to become a doctor by her love for working with children and a desire to help her community.

It was Marcus Welby, the wise and kind family physician from the television show “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” who also inspired Harris to become a doctor. “He not only took care of his patients in the exam room, he also took an interest in their lives outside the exam room. As a physician, he also had a platform to address broader outside community issues,” she said.

But it wasn’t such a clear road to medical school. Her parents had instilled in her the belief she could be whatever she wanted to be in life. But nobody in her family had gone to medical school. Her mother had graduated from state college and her father from high school.

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She didn’t know the ins and outs of getting to medical school, but she knew her parents would be in her corner and had given her a solid foundation. She went to West Virginia University, where she received an undergraduate degree in psychology, and then received her medical degree from the university’s school of medicine. Then, she renewed her love for the brain during the psychiatry clerkship. “I just knew that was where I belonged,” she said 

She completed a psychiatry residency and child psychiatry and forensics fellowships at Emory University. She was the Barton senior policy fellow at the Emory University School of Law, where she worked for children both clinically and in the advocacy arena.

“There were some doubters,” she said. At one point, she was advised go into nursing if she wanted a career as a health professional. “Nursing is a noble profession, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she said.

She always had the encouragement of her family. Although an only child, Harris comes from a large, extended family. Her father had nine siblings and she remembers Sunday dinners at her grandmother’s house.

Neither of her grandmothers were formally educated, yet they, her mother and other family members provided her with examples of strong women. She recalls sitting on the front porch with her maternal grandmother, who had a strong sense of what was appropriate behavior. Even handholding in public was something she disapproved of. But those days on the porch gave Harris a sense of community and caring for others.

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Her family also instilled a strong work ethic. Her maternal grandfather worked in coal mining. She remembers her father working third shift on the railroad, going to work in the cold weather and never complaining. Now 84, her father was the first person she called after the vote that made her the AMA’s president-elect.

She hopes she can be an example to both other women and people from communities of color. She wants to inspire others who want to be a physician or to pursue a career in the healthcare professions and who those who want to take on a leadership role.

“At times I was discouraged, but I always knew the path might be different, might be difficult,” she said. “I always tell young people that at times your confidence might be shaken, but not your resolve.”