Dr. Patrice Harris

Dr. Patrice Harris

CHICAGO, Ill. — A Bluefield native is now leading the American Medical Association (AMA), the first African-American woman to hold the position.

Dr. Patrice Harris, a psychiatrist who now lives in Atlanta, was inaugurated in Chicago Tuesday night as the AMA’s 174th president.

A graduate of Bluefield High School and the West Virginia University School of Medicine, she was elected at the annual meeting of the AMA House of Delegates in Chicago last year to take over the post this month for the 2019-20 year.

In her inauguration speech, which was broadcast on Facebook, Harris said she was a “child from the heart of coal country” and “our diversity is the source of our strength as we face medicine’s most daunting challenges … Our uniquely lived experiences shape who we are…”

Harris said the core values shared by AMA members include access to health care for all, privacy for patients, and the advancement of science and public health.

The Affordable Care Act helped insure millions, she said, but millions more still lack coverage and “there are those who want to roll back the gains we have made.”

“Our core values will not be a part of the health care landscape unless we ensure that they are,” she said.

Harris said many health problems continue to face the nation, including too many chronic conditions, access to health care in rural areas, drug overdose deaths, e-cigarettes’ impact on youth, rising pharmaceutical prices and the stigma of mental health and addiction problems.

She also said other issues that need to be addressed include the disparity of care that plagues communities of people of color, women and the LBGQT community.

Harris said the nation needs to be at a place where “women can live with confidence that we are firmly in charge of our own medical decisions.”

The role and responsibility of AMA is leadership in these and other areas of concern, she added.

“We don’t run away from problems, she said. “Physicians run toward them.”

Harris received a standing ovation when she said that “health in all its dimensions is a basic human right.”

She closed with a poem by Maya Angelou: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

“For me, tonight is one of those moments,” she said. “Good night, dad, who is watching on Facebook, and good night, mom, who is watching in heaven.”

In an interview with the Bluefield Daily Telegraph last year after she learned that she would take over the reins of the organization this month, Harris said she was never sure of what role she would eventually play after leaving Bluefield, but her parents, family and teachers always were behind her.

“My parents were always supportive,” she said of her father, Titus Harris, a retired railroad worker, and her late mother, Barbara, who taught at Central and Bluefield Middle School. “My teachers at Hancock, Central and Bluefield High School were always supportive too.”

Harris also expressed gratitude for her two grandmothers. “They were strong women who taught me many lessons. I had aunts and uncles who always encouraged me.”

Her father came from a large family in Bluefield and met her mother, who was from near Bristol, Va., when she was a student at Bluefield State College.

“I have a very strong and large extended family and they have supported me and been my biggest cheerleaders every step of the way,” she said.

Harris, who will be returning home to Bluefield this October to address the 2019 annual dinner of the Community Foundation of the Virginias, received her medical degree from the West Virginia University School of Medicine and completed a psychiatry residency and child psychiatry fellowship at Emory University School of Medicine. She was inducted in 2007 to the West Virginia University Academy of Distinguished Alumni. 

First elected to the AMA Board of Trustees in 2011, Harris has held the executive offices of AMA board secretary and AMA board chair. In addition to her leadership position with the AMA Opioid Task Force, she has been active on several other AMA task forces and committees on health information technology, payment and delivery reform, and private contracting. She has also chaired the influential AMA Council on Legislation and co-chaired the Women Physicians Congress.

 

Prior to her AMA service, Harris was elected to the American Psychiatric Association Board of Trustees and president of the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association. She was also the founding president of the Georgia Psychiatry Political Action Committee. In 2007, Harris was selected Psychiatrist of the Year by the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association.

On both national and local levels, Harris has spearheaded efforts to integrate public health, behavioral health and primary care services, while incorporating efforts to address the social determinants of health. 

Currently, Harris continues in private practice and consults with both public and private organizations on health service delivery and emerging trends in practice and health policy. She is an adjunct assistant professor in the Emory Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and an adjunct clinical assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Morehouse School of Medicine.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com