There was to be a red velvet cake, a 10-year-old in a tux and Broadway entertainment. That was among the pomp originally slated for the June evening on which Susan R. Bailey, MD, an allergist and immunologist from Fort Worth, Texas, would be inaugurated as the AMA’s 175th president during a traditional in-person ceremony. Instead, COVID-19 dictated a different kind of inauguration.

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“So here I stand, in a nearly empty studio, talking to you through a video screen. And that’s OK,” Dr. Bailey said via videoconference to the 2020 AMA Special Meeting of the AMA House of Delegates in her first official remarks as the holder of the Association’s highest office. “As physicians, we understand better than anyone how a health emergency can disrupt even the most carefully thought out plans.”

An era of physician heroism

In looking at the role physicians have played historically and during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Bailey cited fictional heroes—Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter and Dorothy, of “The Wizard of Oz.” The journey from troubled protagonist to superhuman world-saver is typically fraught, in those stories. In that regard, “a hero’s journey is our journey, a physician’s journey,” she said.

“At some point you confront the ultimate test—maybe it’s having a relationship suffer because your priorities have changed. Maybe it’s not matching into the specialty or program you thought you wanted. Maybe it’s losing your first patient.

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“You’re in a dark place and it seems there is no way out. But you keep going. You find your way out of the darkness and you emerge a better physician and a stronger person for having endured these trials. You realize that you are making a difference in people’s lives. You are saving lives.”

Heroes and allies

Having spent more than three decades working in a small, private practice, Dr. Bailey is an advocate for independent physicians. To do their job, she said, all physicians must be unhindered by external barriers and equipped to handle the pressures of the field, including insurer and government mandates, decreasing payments and increasing demands, and burnout and physician suicide.

Heroes do not fight the good fight on their own, she said. They have help, and in looking at the help physicians need to do their work, Dr. Bailey—who became the AMA's third consecutive woman president—cited the crucial role the AMA plays in letting doctors be doctors.

“We need the power of the AMA on this journey,” she said. “I believe involvement in organized medicine is a professional obligation. Taking good care of our patients requires much more from us than the time we spend with them in an exam room.”

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It is with allies in organized medicine that the real heroes will confront and defeat the generational health challenge the nation is facing.

“We are on a new quest that none of us expected—living and working in a world that may be changed forever, in a wounded, divided nation that needs our leadership,” Dr. Bailey said. “But we need not fear the dark times on our journey. We need only to lean on one another to take care of each other and to keep our eyes fixed on the horizon.

“We will get through this pandemic. We will continue to fight for our patients and for the practice of medicine. This is our journey, and we will walk it together.”

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