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Health care: Doctor brings local perspective to AMA board

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Pawleys Island area physician Gerald Harmon hopes to bring his experiences from family and military medicine to the discussions about improving patient care with the nation’s largest organization of medical doctors.

Harmon, a family physician for 25 years and assistant surgeon general before retiring from the National Guard and U.S. Air Force, has been elected to the Board of Trustees of the American Medical Association.

“Working together,” Harmon said, “physicians can share our expertise to help make significant strides in reducing chronic disease, educating future physicians and improving how care is provided to our patients.”

Harmon is vice president of Georgetown Physician Services and interim vice president of medical affairs for Georgetown Hospital System.

Bruce Bailey, the hospital CEO and president, said Harmon is an outstanding choice for the AMA board.

“Gerald Harmon is a dedicated physician who has earned the trust of his patients, the respect of his colleagues and the admiration of leaders in our community,” Bailey said. “That alone is an achievement, but Gerald Harmon has also been a champion for quality medical care and an advocate for physicians and medical students. We are proud that he is one of ours, and confident that he will be an outstanding representative for South Carolina, the profession of medicine and the AMA.”

Harmon was able to discuss his new role only in response to questions submitted to the AMA for approval. His answers were also reviewed by the association.

Where does joining the AMA board rank as a career accomplishment?

I’m extremely proud to have been elected to the AMA’s Board of Trustees. My colleagues on the board are truly the leaders of the medical profession, so it is an honor to join them in the AMA’s efforts to make health care work better for America’s patients and physicians. As part of our strategic focus, the AMA is initiating partnerships to lead meaningful innovations to improve the health of the nation, and I am excited to be a part of this important work.

How did it feel to be rubbing shoulders with such illustrious medical people at the AMA Convention?

It was really pretty neat. The AMA’s Annual Meeting attracts leaders from state and specialty medical societies, but the U.S. Surgeon General and members of Congress also attend these meetings. In bringing these leaders together, the AMA creates a unique opportunity for collaboration about the most pressing issues in health care. The AMA’s broad reach and deep relationships uniquely allow us to advance results-focused initiatives that improve public health, improve medical education and improve practice sustainability and physician satisfaction.

Will serving on the board require you to be on the road more often?

That’s a question that my patients and my practice partners asked immediately! My new board responsibilities have replaced my previous AMA responsibilities as a member of the AMA’s Council on Medical Service, so the difference in time commitment should be a net zero.

Being a military man, are there any parallels in the two organizations?

You bet. I’ve found that most successful leaders in both career tracks worked their way up from the bottom before being given the opportunity to serve in a higher capacity. That’s no surprise or secret. Using this model, the military and the AMA can make sure their leaders have gained insight and experience before representing their respective organizations at the highest levels.

Will you have a specific area of interest, committee assignments for instance?

The actual committee assignments are made by the board chairman, and he has assigned me to both the audit and membership committees. I am looking forward to serving on both.

Do you expect your local peers to provide input and examples of their experiences in a low-income state for you to bring to the board?

Yes. I hope that my experiences and the experiences of my peers in South Carolina will be important perspectives I can bring to this new position. Our state medical society has always had a close relationship with the AMA. Having a local physician serving in AMA leadership means the perspective of S.C. physicians and patients will be readily available to the AMA.

Will military medicine and rehab be one of your interests?

Certainly the perspective and experience gleaned from a 30-plus year career in federal and military medicine will influence my opinions and viewpoints on the board. Providing medical consultations and recommendations for acute inpatient rehab patients for the past year at my county hospital has also been a rewarding challenge beyond the routine of many family physicians. The U.S. medical community is exceptional in its diversity of physician specialty, practice arrangement and overall perspective, and the AMA is able to bring all of these experiences together to represent the voice of medicine.

South Carolina is regarded as an “obese state.” How will the AMA’s declaring obesity a disease lead to better treatment of the diseases leading from obesity: diabetes, heart trouble, etc.?

Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects about one in three Americans. The health consequences and financial burden of obesity on this country – and especially in South Carolina – is devastating. As physicians who are on the front line treating this disease, we want to get people to pay attention to the seriousness of the situation so we can prevent future patient suffering.

As part of our strategic focus, the AMA is committed to improving health outcomes for our patients, and we are working to reduce the incidence of two diseases that are often linked to obesity – cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

What do you hope to learn from your experience with the AMA?

Throughout my career I’ve found my AMA involvement has made me more aware of medical issues on a broader, national scale. When my small medical practice or even our hospital ran into speed bumps, I knew we could look to the AMA to offer a potential solution or at least offer a suggestion as to how to begin to solve the problem. Conversely, the perspective provided by local and state physicians to a national organization like the AMA makes the organization stronger and more effective.

How will this make you a better mentor/doctor?

I love my job, my patients and their families. It’s my hope that I can help young people see value in medicine as a profession and realize that they can have an impact beyond their immediate community. I have found that my own patients realize that physicians care about the health of their individual patients, but that they also care deeply about the transformation of the health care system. The AMA is committed to making improvements to the health-care system that will benefit both patients and physicians.

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