New AMA president discusses pandemic during inaugural address


Gerald E. Harmon, MD, a family physician in South Carolina whose patients sometimes leave produce in the back of his pickup truck, has practiced medicine during military deployments and during 15-hour shifts in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Gerald E. Harmon, president of the AMA

Dr. Gerald E. Harmon

He has encountered “all manner of unexpected situations” and feels “more than prepared” to serve as president of the American Medical Association, he said.

At the same time, “I still find myself a little nervous about it,” Dr. Harmon said in an interview the day after he was sworn in as president. “I would be less than candid if I didn’t tell you that. I don’t mean intimidated. ... It’s almost like before an athletic event.”

Dr. Harmon was sworn in June 15 as the 176th president of the AMA during the virtual Special Meeting of the AMA House of Delegates. He follows Susan R. Bailey, MD, an allergist from Fort Worth, Tex., in leading the organization, which has more than 270,000 members.

Advancing health equity

During his inaugural address, Dr. Harmon discussed the pandemic and the AMA’s plan to advance health equity.

COVID-19 “has revealed enormous gaps in how we care for people and communities in America, demonstrated in the disproportionate impact of this pandemic on communities of color and in the weaknesses of our underfunded and underresourced public health infrastructure,” Dr. Harmon said.

He described medical professionals as being “at war against seemingly formidable adversaries,” including the pandemic, the effects of prolonged isolation on emotional and behavioral health, and political and racial tension. There is an “immense battle to rid our health system – and society – of health disparities and racism,” he said. “As we face these battles, we must remember that our actions as physicians and as leaders will have far-reaching consequences.”

Other challenges before the AMA include vaccinating patients, recovering from the ongoing pandemic, removing unnecessary obstacles to care, ending an epidemic of drug overdoses, improving outcomes for patients with chronic disease, incorporating technology in ways that benefit doctors and patients, and preparing future physicians, Dr. Harmon noted.

“We are going to embed the principles of equity and racial justice within the AMA and throughout our health system,” added Dr. Harmon, who has been an AMA board member since 2013 and served as board chair from 2017 to 2018. He highlighted the AMA’s strategic plan, released in May 2021, to advance health equity and justice and improve the quality of care for people who have been marginalized.

“Meaningful progress won’t happen until we, as doctors, recognize how profoundly systemic racism influences the health of our patients, and until we commit to taking action within our own spheres of influence,” Dr. Harmon said. “As a family doctor in a very diverse state, I have treated people from all backgrounds, and have seen inequities up close, inequities that understandably lead to distrust.”

Commenting in an interview on JAMA’s controversial tweet and podcast related to structural racism from earlier this year that have been deleted and removed from JAMA’s website, Dr. Harmon said, JAMA maintains editorial independence from the AMA, but that direction from a journal oversight committee could lead to changes at the journal that could help prevent similar incidents.

“We’ll support whatever the journal oversight committee suggests,” Dr. Harmon said.

“We had public statements about [the podcast]. I do think that we’ll be able to move very quickly in a stronger direction to address the issue of systemic racism,” Dr. Harmon said. “The AMA has acknowledged that it is a public health threat. We have acknowledged that it is ... a political description versus a biologic construct. So, I would anticipate that you’ll find changes.”

The AMA began developing its strategic plan to advance equity several years ago, Dr. Harmon noted. “I think we are very well poised to move forward and attack this enemy of health disparity.”


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