Dr. Patrice Harris was a third-year medical student working her first clinical rotation at Charleston Area Medical Center General Division when she had what she described Tuesday as the first life-altering experience of her medical career.
Harris, a Bluefield native and now a child psychiatrist practicing in Atlanta, was working in the emergency department when a woman arrived in cardiac arrest after an accident. When the defibrillator wasn’t helping, Harris and the physician teaching her had to cut open the woman’s chest.
“I remember my resident saying, ‘Patrice ... massage her heart,” Harris recalled.
She and the doctor were trying to keep the woman’s blood flowing until they could get her into an operating room. The woman didn’t survive, but Harris remembers the incident as a significant moment early in her training.
“In the moment, you’re doing what you need to do, but as I look back on that, I learned number one about the fragility of human life and number two of what a privilege and an honor it is to be a physician and to ... have that opportunity to save someone’s life,” Harris said. “That was an early lesson for a third-year medical student to learn.”
Nearly three decades after she graduated from West Virginia University School of Medicine, Harris is weeks away from her inauguration June 11 as the first African-American woman president of the American Medical Association.
Harris was the keynote speaker at the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation’s 16th annual Report to the Community Tuesday at the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences. She described her medical school experience during her speech and during an interview before the event.
As president, Harris will be the official spokeswoman for the American Medical Association, the oldest and largest organization representing physicians in the United States.
She’ll also continue to chair the organization’s opioid task force, which convened in 2014 first to amplify the work that physicians and physicians groups were doing to address the epidemic. In 2015, the task force came up with recommendations for physicians in addressing the epidemic, including addressing stigma and improving education, and improving access to naloxone and to treatment.
Harris said her drive to address the opioid epidemic is in part because of her experience as a West Virginian. Harris said her family has been affected by the crisis.
“I know that it has impacted my home state so fervently,” Harris said of the epidemic. “Now, there’s not a state that has been spared from this epidemic, so West Virginia is not unique in this.
“But I have to say that I understood and I understand some of the issues surrounding the effect of opioids in rural communities because I grew up in West Virginia and appreciate and understand small towns and rural areas,” Harris said.
Harris said during her time as AMA president, the organization will continue to push to improve access to treatment for those with opioid-use disorder.
The agency encourages physicians to take the day-long course and be registered with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to be certified to provide medication assisted treatment, she said.
The agency also is committed to ensuring that people have access to “affordable, quality, meaningful health coverage,” she said.
“We know that those who have health coverage for treatment have improved access to treatment so that’s another front,” she said.
She said the agency is also working to eliminate barriers to care.
“Unfortunately, sometimes both physicians and patients find that payers, whether that be the insurance company, both private and public, may require paperwork or phone calls or a policy called a fail-first policy where you have to fail at one treatment before they will approve another,” Harris said. “All of those end up being barriers to treatment, so the AMA is working to solve those problems as well.”
Harris said there’s not a quick fix or a “magic wand” for the opioid epidemic.
Harris said she’s also committed to encouraging diversity in the physician workforce.
Harris said she was the only African American in her medical classes at WVU, and it wasn’t until after undergraduate school that she encountered an African-American physician. Growing up, her inspiration to become a doctor was fictional white male doctor on the television show “Marcus Welby, M.D.”
“I think the saying ‘if you can see it, you can believe it’ is true,” Harris said. “And I hope to be tangible evidence for young girls and young boys and girls from communities of color that you can aspire to be a physician. Not only that, you can aspire to be a leader in organized medicine.”