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Welcome Address

Monday, April 27, 2009

AMA Reception
National Minority Quality Forum
National Leadership Summit on Health Disparities
Ritz-Carlton Hotel
Washington D.C.

Joseph M. Heyman, MD
Chair, Board of Trustees
American Medical Association

Welcome, everybody. I’m pleased to be here to represent the American Medical Association, and through its affiliated member associations, the 819 thousand physicians of America.

A little over one hundred days ago, this nation welcomed its forty-fourth president – welcomed a man who said that his “unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people” came from his own unique American story.

And it’s pretty clear that America – and nations around the world – have found President Obama’s story a compelling one; not just because he is the son of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother, but also because he has been willing to confront issues that demand our attention.

During the Campaign, President Obama said that “race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” In medicine, that couldn’t be more true!

Inequalities in our society still linger – including in our health care system. We cannot afford to ignore those inequalities.

Last summer, the AMA apologized for its role in fostering inequalities in medicine. We wanted to shine a bright light on the shameful practices we engaged in toward our nation’s African-American physicians.

My friend and colleague, the AMA’s Dr. Ron Davis, said that “the AMA is proud to support research about the history of the racial divide in organized medicine because by confronting the past we can embrace the future.”

He was right.

Sadly, Ron died a few months later. [pause] But you should know that Ron’s commitment to ending health care disparities; ending racial discrimination in health care.

Ron’s work lives and thrives.

Thanks to Ron and the work of so many in this room, the AMA and the National Medical Association and the National Hispanic Medical Association are working together more collaboratively and effectively than ever before.

I want to particularly thank Dr. Sandra Gadson, Dr. Carolyn Britton, Dr. Willarda Edwards, and Dr. Elena Rios for their support and hard work.

By working collaboratively, our Commission to End Health Care Disparities has been able to educate doctors and other health professionals about disparities in the system – and how to get rid of them.

This commission dates back to 2004, when the AMA, along with the National Medical Association and the National Hispanic Medical Association, brought together representatives from some of the nation’s largest physician organizations and health groups to discuss the issues of racial and ethnic health care disparities.

Today, this coalition includes more than 50 medical and health organizations. Their work is excellent.

It includes building physician awareness, providing education and training relating to eliminating health care disparities, identifying ways to improve data collection to more fully understand why and where disparities exist, and also looking at how to increase the pipeline of under-represented physicians.

And this provides a perfect transition for me to talk about the AMA’s Doctors Back to School program – a true grassroots program that organizes local physicians in underserved communities to go to local schools to promote medical careers – to students.

Each year Doctors Back to School grows. It’s the type of program where physicians and medical students can share why they became doctors, why being a physician is important to them, and tell these kids, especially from under-represented racial and ethnic groups – that medicine is an attainable career option for everyone.

I know it’s a program that may be limited – since it goes school-by-school. But if just one of the students we talk to grows up to be a doctor, it makes it all worthwhile. That’s why we’re doing it. The AMA hopes Doctors Back to School will sow the seeds of interest that will eventually grow the number of minority physicians.

We’re proud to work toward ending inequality in health care. But keep in mind that while we’re making progress – our nation certainly has not solved the problems we face. Minorities in this country still suffer disproportionately from diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, cancer, stroke and infant mortality. Here in Washington, D.C., the District’s African-American population suffers some of the highest cancer rates in the country, in part because of the lack of access to screening.

At the AMA, we are working hard to eradicate these racially or culturally based disparities in health care. These disparities are like a cancer eating away at the vitality of our society. And while the causes of these disparities may be many and complex, I believe they often boil down to stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination.

Solving these problems is a top priority. We want physicians to understand and address the factors that cause disparities. We need education and training to reduce gaps in the delivery of quality care. Evidence-based research, and specific training programs are already in place.

Medicine has a proud history of identifying problems and then solving them. And it’s clear to me that professional health care groups like the AMA can be a catalyst for improving care and eliminating disparities.

Together, we need to continue to cooperate, study and solve the problem. We’re much closer to this goal than we were before. It’s the type of opportunity that continues because of the work done by groups like the National Minority Quality Forum, the Commission to End Healthcare Disparities and the AMA Minority Affairs Consortium (or as the AMA affectionately calls it, the “MAC”).

For physicians, this opportunity is also called the art and science of medicine – and it applies to every patient – regardless of race, class or ethnic background.

Together, we are stronger.

Enjoy the reception. Thank you.