BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — Dr. Patrice Harris is a Bluefield native, a West Virginia University graduate, and she is now the first African-American woman elected as president of the American Medical Association.
Harris will become the 174th president of the AMA in June 2019, and is now serving as president-elect. She was elected to the post earlier this month. She practices psychiatry in Atlanta, a long way from the hometown that produced her.
“I enjoyed growing up in Bluefield,” Harris said. “It was a thriving town during my years.”
It was a normal childhood for Harris, one that many can relate to.
“I was a majorette, and so Friday night football, of course, was huge with the Bluefield Beavers,” Harris said.
But when it came time to leave Bluefield for WVU, Harris didn’t have much guidance on how to get to where she wanted to be — into medical school.
“No one in my family had gone to medical school, and I had no family friends that did,” Harris said. “It is not an easy thing to do if you don’t know or don’t have guidance as what to major in.”
She was inspired to go into the health profession for her love of children, her desire to help her community and, notably, by TV family physician Marcus Welby, from the show “Marcus Welby, M.D.”
“I was inspired because Marcus Welby not only took an interest in his patients’ lives inside the exam room, but he also cared about their lives outside the exam room,” Harris said. “I recall some episodes where he was involved in community-wide issues and that inspired me.
“I knew that physicians were well-respected members of the community,” Harris continued, “and therefore would have a platform to address broader community issues that affect patients’ health.”
She made it to WVU, received her undergraduate degree in psychology in 1982, and then went on to pursue her master’s degree. Then it came time for her doctorate.
“It was my plan to be a pediatrician, and that was my plan up until my third year of medical school,” Harris said. “The brain was just fascinating to me, and when I went to my third-year psychiatry clerkship, I felt at home, and I then decided that I could merge my love for working with children and adolescents with psychiatry.”
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for her. She had her doubters when she arrived at medical school.
“At some points in my journey, there wasn’t as much encouragement, and in fact, some discouragement,” Harris said. “I recall early on I had been advised to perhaps go into nursing and not medicine. Nursing is a very noble career and noble profession, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
“So, it could have been related to the fact that I was a woman, the fact that I was a person of color,” Harris said. “I don’t know.”
She graduated WVU’s medical school in 1992, and began practicing and serving in organized medicine. She served on the American Psychiatric Association board and was later named by the APA as a delegate to the AMA.
Harris was elected to the AMA board of trustees in June 2011, and has and will continue to chair the AMA’s opioid task force. She has also chaired the AMA Council on Legislation and co-chaired the Women Physicians Congress.
As head of the opioids task force and being from Southern West Virginia, Harris has been able to see firsthand the challenges the area faces. But she also recognizes there are different fixes to the opioid epidemic in each area of the country.
“The solutions to this are local, there is no one-size-fits-all solution that will work everywhere,” Harris said, “and so, what will work in West Virginia may not work in Georgia.”
The task force reported May 31 that opioid prescriptions across the country have continued to drop for the fifth year in a row, doctors across the country accessed state prescription drug monitoring programs at a 122 percent higher rate than the previous year and the overdose-reversing medication naloxone, or Narcan, is now highly more accessible.
In her vision for the AMA, Harris said she wants to improve the education of up and coming medical professionals.
“(The) AMA has, and will continue to be, a partner in innovating how we educate the next generation of physicians,” Harris said.
With all the accolades and honors, Harris said she is glad to have a diverse background and hopes to apply it to her new position and future policies.
“Every detour I have taken on my journey I appreciate because I learn and have learned from every detour, every challenge, and I think its just all gone together to get me to where I am today,” Harris said.
And she’s always had the encouragement from the people who mean the most to her, even when the journey got tough.
“I always knew from my family and my parents that I could be whatever I wanted to be,” Harris said.