New AMA President Discusses Pandemic During Inaugural Address

Jake Remaly

June 17, 2021

Dr Gerald E. Harmon

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.

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," 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."

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, 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," 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, Harmon noted.

"We are going to embed the principles of equity and racial justice within the AMA and throughout our health system," added 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," 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, 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," 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," 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, Harmon noted. "I think we are very well poised to move forward and attack this enemy of health disparity."

AAFP President Supporting Harmon's Inauguration

Dr Ada Stewart

Among those congratulating Harmon on his inauguration was Ada Stewart, MD, a fellow family physician and South Carolina resident who is the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

"We are very excited that family physician Gerald Harmon will serve as president of the AMA this coming year," Stewart said. "Family medicine encompasses the very essence of medicine – treating the whole person, in the context of family, community, and each individual's unique circumstances. As a family physician, Harmon brings important perspectives from the front lines of primary care. His commitment to health equity and evidence-based care, as well as his concern for practice sustainability and physician well-being, will serve him well as he leads the house of medicine into the future."

Harmon has practiced as a family medicine specialist in Georgetown, S.C., for more than 30 years. He is a member of the clinical faculty for the Tidelands Health Medical University of South Carolina family medicine residency program, advises a community health system, and is vice president of a multispecialty physician practice. In addition, Harmon is the medical director of a nonprofit hospice and volunteers as medical supervisor for his local school district.

Harmon received his undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and received his medical degree from the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston. He completed a residency training program in family medicine with the U.S. Air Force at Eglin (Fla.) AFB, Florida.

During a 35-year military career, Harmon served as chief surgeon for the National Guard Bureau and assistant surgeon general for the U.S. Air Force. He retired from the military as a major general.

Harmon and his wife, Linda, have three married children and eight grandchildren.

Every now and then, a bucket of tomatoes or even a half bushel of corn shows up in the back of Harmon's pickup truck, with a note on the window thanking him. "That really touches you deeply," Harmon said. "I practice that type of medicine and I'm honored to be able to do that every day."

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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