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AMA President, alumna Patrice Harris Urges Americans to Stay Home

Patrice Harris talks with person across table.

Qs by Wendy Holdren
Photograph Provided

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As the new coronavirus spreads the COVID-19 disease across the world, West Virginia University Magazine spoke with alumna Dr. Patrice Harris, current president of the American Medical Association, about the advice her association is giving the medical community and the rest of us at home. Harris, BA ’82, Psychology, MA ’86, Counseling Psychology, MD ’92, is a native of Mercer County, W.Va., and is the first African-American woman to become president of the AMA.

During this unprecedented time, how do you lead the nation’s healthcare providers?

National Doctors Day [which occurred in the midst of the pandemic] was an opportune time to thank physicians and other health care professionals who are on the front lines. I think it’s critical that we all recognize the heroic efforts of all our physicians. And on behalf of the AMA, I thank them.

A second critical opportunity is to listen. From emails, texts and social media posts, we have been listening to the concerns, the worries and the needs of the physicians across this country. What we do at the AMA is give those concerns voice and translate those concerns into action. That’s what we’ve been doing since the beginning of this pandemic.

What are you hearing from physicians, and what’s being done in response?

The most critical need right now is for personal protective equipment – masks, gowns, face shields. We’ve been hearing since the beginning that physicians don’t have the equipment they need. They’re wearing the equipment for multiple patients and multiple days and are attempting to sterilize the equipment. Everyone is making do with what we have, but in usual times, these actions would not meet the accepted policy for infection control.

The AMA has called on the president to enact the DPA – Defense Production Act. We will need to continue to amplify the need to make sure we have enough ventilators. This is about preparedness. As a former public health official, I know that a key part of the work of public health is to be prepared for public health emergencies and to prepare for the worst. Certainly, we can always hope for the best, but we absolutely have to prepare for the worst.

To make sure that equipment gets to those who need it, we’ve also called on the President to develop a national tracking system. We are going to do our best in combatting this pandemic with data and facts. Data regarding the number hospitalized, and unfortunately, the data around those who ultimately pass away. We also would be well served with data regarding equipment. How many ventilators do we have? What is the specific need in each region, state or even down to the practice or hospital level? We’ve called on the administration to develop a national tracking system – not just on the incidents of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths – but also a database of supplies and equipment. We could then know who has what, who needs what and what areas have priority need. The apex, or the peak, of infections and hospitalizations and, unfortunately, deaths are going to be different in different areas of the country. A federally coordinated effort would serve us well.

What strengths or positives have you seen in the overall response?

As we focus on the COVID-19 disease, physicians have been reducing their hours and days in their offices. However, other health care needs still need to be met. Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma has been very receptive regarding telemedicine and telehealth. CMS has relaxed a lot of regulations around that. And to make sure there is equitable payment around that, we need all payers to be receptive to enhancing the use of telehealth – thereby increasing patient access to care, and reducing the risk of our workforce becoming infected or ill. We’re already balancing on a workforce shortage predating COVID-19, so anything we can do to mitigate or reduce the chance of both physicians and patients becoming infected is a good thing.

Physicians are seeing patients via telehealth and even telephone. In rural areas –or for our seniors who don’t have a data plan on their phone or access to the internet – telephone visits are critical and are now allowed by CMS. That’s definitely something that’s been positive. Every need can’t be met using telemedicine, but physicians across the country are using telemedicine, and we are able to stay in touch with our patients in that way.

This outbreak has given everyone an opportunity to play their part, even if that means staying home, in preventing the spread. Can you talk to me about how it’s everyone’s responsibility to help create a healthy nation?

If there’s only one takeaway from this article, let it be this: Individual actions make for collective impact. I want everyone to know they can do their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by staying home, practicing physical distancing. Certainly, go out for any urgent health needs, getting groceries or medications. But everyone can do their part to prevent spread of COVID-19 and stay home. We have a message from physicians we want to get out to the public that says, “If you stay home, you keep us all well.” It’s not just about keeping yourself well, which is important; it’s about keeping us all well. We do want everyone to follow the guidelines of their local officials, but if everyone stays home, we will go a long way in reducing the spread of COVID-19. The evidence supports that.

On a personal note, what has this experience been like for you as president of the AMA?

Being the president of the AMA is a wonderful privilege, but it’s also an awesome responsibility. You have a platform to be the voice of physicians in making sure our country is a healthier country. I am even more acutely aware of the responsibility of this platform in this particular moment in time. The responsibility of demonstrating leadership, the responsibility of truth-telling, the responsibility of making sure we are having discussions based on science and evidence – I take all of those responsibilities seriously and make sure I live up to those responsibilities.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Stay home! Practice kindness. Check on one during this pandemic. Let’s maintain our connections – we can do that through technology. Stay home, practice self-care, maintain physical distancing – staying six feet apart, no large gatherings.  Wash your hands and let’s stay socially connected.