Q&A: New AMA president discusses ways to seize ‘historic moment’ in medicine
Gerald E. Harmon, MD, was recently sworn in as the 176th president of the AMA.
Harmon, a family physician from Georgetown, South Carolina, brings more than 30 years of professional and military experience to the AMA presidency, according to a press release from the organization. He has also been a member of the AMA’s board of trustees and a member of its Council on Medical Service. In addition, Harmon has previously served as the chair and president of the South Carolina Medical Association board of trustees.
In a recent interview with Healio Primary Care, Harmon talked about his priorities as AMA president, what physicians should tell their patients about COVID-19 and more.
Healio Primary Care: What are your priorities for the AMA?
Harmon: It is an honor to take over as president at such a historic moment for medicine in the country right now. Our No. 1 priority, and mine, is to bring an end to the pandemic and encourage everyone to get the vaccine to help put the pandemic in our rearview mirror and really preach the safety and efficiency of the vaccines. As physicians, we play a pretty important role as ambassadors for our patients. We need to embrace that role and do whatever we can to get as many people vaccinated as possible.
Right now, my other personal priorities [are also] the priorities of AMA: to reduce obstacles and burdens to patient care, to improve medicine, to prepare physicians for the future and to take steps right now to combat the rise in chronic disease, which has been really a major underlying risk factor for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Healio Primary Care: Aside from being inaugurated as AMA president, what are some other highlights of your career?
Harmon: I have been able to provide care for generations of families here in rural South Carolina. My record is five generations in one single exam room in a hospital. That is a highlight. Even now, when I think about it, it sends chills up my spine.
I have been invited to the homes and communities of my patients and been trusted with their most precious possessions: their children, their grandchildren and their spouses. I have been blessed along the way with physical and psychological skills and good health, this side of the stethoscope, to provide that care.
Along the way, I have had some medical leadership positions. I have been chief of staff at our community hospitals. I have been elected and recognized as a leader of a local, state, and now, a national medical association. So, without any false modesty, every day is a highlight for me.
Healio Primary Care: What have you learned from your experiences in the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard that helps you as a physician?
Harmon: The military has allowed me to witness and experience health care delivery in a multitude of environments, work on medical readiness and the fitness and training of the workforce.
Over the decades when I was in the military, I was deployed on wartime and humanitarian missions in numerous locations, including Western Africa, Central America and the Caribbean. I have witnessed how fortunate we are to have such an advanced medical system in the United States. I cannot say enough about how much the military and aviation experience allowed me to prioritize things. We multitask so well in medicine and the military really emphasized that for me.
Healio Primary Care: Many states have lifted their social distancing requirements, which may lead patients to believe the worst of the pandemic is over. What should physicians be telling their patients about preventing COVID-19?
Harmon: Three words: Get the vaccine. We need to emphasize to our patients and to our fellow physicians and health care providers that all of the FDA-authorized vaccines are proven to be safe and effective and widespread vaccinations are the country’s best shot to a return to normalcy. The vaccine is still the best and most scientifically proven answer for COVID-19 right now.
Those who choose not to get the vaccine for whatever reason should take steps to reduce their chances of catching COVID-19 or spreading it to somebody else, including wearing a mask outside the home, practicing safe physical distancing and washing their hands.
Healio Primary Care: Family medicine and other primary care practices have taken a significant financial hit due to the pandemic. How has the AMA helped affected physicians?
Harmon: AMA has helped physicians and practices recover from disruption and the damage to their practices by the pandemic by pushing for loans and other forms of financial assistance. It also helped establish guidelines for the CDC and local agencies about how to reopen practices. We pushed the government to help deliver personal protective equipment, to reduce obstacles to care, to use science-based policies for pandemic control and encouraged and supported vaccine development and distribution.
There are literally billions of dollars in emergency funding to help business practices stay open, viable and provide care through things like the CARES Act and subsequent emergency supplement legislation. Many practices have qualified for CARES Act funding, and we helped practices understand the process of converting a loan into a grant. We also asked for broadband telehealth expansion to allow us to practice telemedicine and improved funding and resourcing at the federal and the state level to increase care in patients who were not able to travel.
AMA rapidly convened the CPT advisory committee and went through the scientific rigor of establishing CPT codes [for COVID-19 vaccinations] to allow us to submit claims to the insurance companies and the CMS agencies to get compensated and reimbursed for patient care. We have also asked the federal government to expand testing, and the FDA to use its emergency use authorization so we can get treatments out. We have even tried to encourage private insurance companies to waive or minimize the prior authorization requirements that are known barriers to patient care and [causes of] physician dissatisfaction.
Healio Primary Care: What are the AMA’s next steps?
Harmon: We have asked that the regulatory relaxation regarding telehealth that has occurred over the last year to become more regular, as long as we can assure quality of care and accountability for the physicians and the industries that are providing the telemedicine.
We do not want to necessarily replace in-person, hands-on health care, but we do want health care access in areas that have transportation issues and access to quality health care because sometimes the geography is such that they have to travel a long distance to see a qualified physician. We are also hoping to improve rural internet and broadband service access.
Healio Primary Care: Do you have any final thoughts?
Harmon: It will take a team-based approach to reconfigure health care in a post-pandemic world. We have seen the vulnerabilities that COVID-19 has brought to many Americans and marginalized communities that have a chronic disease burden. We have also seen how marginalized communities have a higher health care risk from the COVID-19 pandemic.
We can take what we’ve learned from this, this cloud of the pandemic and this response, and find the silver lining to it and improve opportunities to advance health equity.
AMA. Gerald E. Harmon, MD, wins office of president-elect. https://www.ama-assn.org/house-delegates/special-meeting/gerald-e-harmon-md-wins-office-president-elect. Accessed June 9, 2021.
AMA. South Carolina family physician chosen as AMA president-elect. https://www.ama-assn.org/press-center/press-releases/south-carolina-family-physician-chosen-ama-president-elect. Accessed June 9, 2021.
AMA. Susan R. Bailey, M.D., inaugurated as 175th president of the AMA. https://www.ama-assn.org/press-center/press-releases/susan-r-bailey-md-inaugurated-175th-president-ama. Accessed June 9, 2021.