ATHENS — There were two faces of Dr. Patrice Harris on display on Thursday in Mercer County.
There was the super-successful native of Bluefield, a role model for a new generation. And there was the spokesperson for the agendas of the American Medical Association (AMA).
In June, Harris became the first African-American woman to serve as AMA president. On Thursday, she returned to her roots. The day began with her induction into the Bluefield High School Hall of Fame. In the afternoon, she spoke to hundreds of Concord University students and faculty in Athens.
She said she tells young people, “Dream big, and think big. Ask a lot of questions. Ask others to expose you to folks outside of your circle. It’s important to expand our horizons. Dream beyond what’s just in front of you.”
“I hope to be tangible representation … so that young students know that there are possibilities beyond where they are,” she said. “It’s not about me. It’s about representation of what’s possible.”
Harris was the daughter of a father who worked for the railroad in Bluefield, and a mother who was a math teacher on the junior high school and middle school level.
“I wanted to be a physician since I was in the eighth grade,” Harris said. “I had a lot of detours and challenges.”
After graduating as salutatorian of her class at Bluefield High, her path led to graduation from West Virginia University, receiving a medical degree in 1992. Following her passion for helping improve the lives of children, she studied child and adolescent psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta.
She continues to live in Atlanta, serving as a practicing psychiatrist. Over the years, she has also been a public health administrator, patient advocate and medical society lobbyist.
“Never did I ever dream that I would have this platform … to impact the health of everyone in this country,” she said, standing on the stage of Concord’s Fine Arts Center.
She has a big mandate. She said that the AMA currently has three “large-bucket” emphases. The association wants to cut regulatory and bureaucratic burdens on medical care, it seeks to halt the increase of chronic diseases in America and it has pledged to embrace innovation “to prepare the next generation of physicians.”
Harris talked about some of the current issues facing health care in rural America during a press conference prior to her afternoon talk.
“The AMA has grave concerns regarding rural hospitals closing,” she said, “because we know that that negatively impacts access to care. We also have grave concerns about lessening competition. Clearly, the data shows that (with) some of these big, big mergers, costs are not going down, they are going up.
“We want to make sure that our healthcare marketplace has competition, and we believe that that competition will lead to good quality health care. …
“Access to physician care, access to hospital care is important. That’s one of the many reasons that the AMA supported the Affordable Care Act, which included Medicaid expansion.
“We know a lot of rural hospitals certainly depend on Medicaid revenues to keep the doors open.”
As a practicing psychiatrist, she has treated patients with substance-abuse addiction, she said. She has chaired the AMA’s Opioid Task Force since it was formed in 2014.
She said that task was informed by “my expertise and knowledge about living in a rural state, and appreciating how the opioid epidemic has impacted West Virginia, particularly southern West Virginia.”
“The opioid epidemic continues to be a major problem, but the epidemic certainly has evolved. Most of the overdose deaths now are related to illicitly-manufactured Fentanyl and heroin — still opioids.”
“We still have a problem, and that’s why the AMA is laser-focused right now on access to treatment,” she said. “We want to make sure there’s infrastructure, and there’s sustainable funding, for treatment (of) anyone who has a substance abuse disorder.”
She said that physicians spend too much time on paperwork dealing with prior authorization requirements “that really just delay care,” she said. “For someone who has an opioid use disorder, delay in care can mean death.”
For the general public, “We know that there are many determinants of good health,” she said, and that among those are access to a hospital and a physician. Others include “social determinants” like education, employment and adequate housing, she said.
“It’s just as important that we — and I mean ‘we’ as a collective community, not just the physician community — work together to address those other determinants of health.”
“We know that the higher your educational attainment, the more likely you are to have better health.”
She talked about her approach to leadership as well. She said leaders surround themselves with people who have expertise in fields that the leader doesn’t.
“None of us can know everything about everything, but smart leaders are good listeners,” she said.
She makes a point of telling students about “the importance of leading, and leading with authenticity. One of the things that I believe has held me in good stead in my years of leadership, is remaining true to who I am. … Be authentic. Stay true to yourself, and I always say, speak truth to power. Be inquisitive, and be well-informed.”
“But there’s a parallel responsibility. I think it’s not enough just to say to our young students, ‘Dream big.’ Those of us who are … adults in the room, have a responsibility to make sure that those dreams are equitably available … and that they know about the opportunities.”
“Maybe there are students in the room that won’t choose a career in health care. That’s fine. But whatever career they choose, I want them to aspire to leadership in that career — and lead with who they are.”
Recalling her hall of fame induction at Bluefield High on Thursday, she said, “It is so meaningful to be recognized by your hometown, and your high school. I said at my inauguration at the AMA that I am the sum of my parts, and I began in Bluefield, W.Va. And I carry Bluefield, W.Va., with me wherever I go. I am who I am today because of Bluefield, W.Va.
“So it’s just a ‘full circle moment’ to be inducted into the hall of fame,” she said. “I was brought to tears at the beginning of the presentation. It took me a second; I had to compose myself.”