AMA President-Elect Comes By His Profession Naturally

AMA President-Elect Comes By His Profession Naturally

June 17, 2022 0 By Jennifer Walker

CHICAGO — For American Medical Association (AMA) president-elect Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH, becoming a doctor was, you might say, in his blood.

“My dad’s a dentist, my mom’s a psychologist, and I knew I wanted to do something in healthcare,” Ehrenfeld said Wednesday in his first interview since being elected the day before (a public relations person was present at the interview). “Being a doctor called to me.”

Ehrenfeld grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and graduated from Haverford College in Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, where the dean at the time was James Madara, MD, who is now the AMA’s executive vice president and CEO. “He signed my diploma,” Ehrenfeld noted.

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Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH

Ehrenfeld decided to specialize in anesthesiology because during his 2-week anesthesia rotation, which occurred in his third year of medical school, “it was the only rotation where I didn’t want to go home at the end of the day, and that spoke to me,” he said, noting that he now mostly takes care of neurosurgery patients. “It is incredibly rewarding to me to watch a patient that I have safely taken through the operating room walk out of the hospital without a brain tumor and go on to have a successful, healthy, productive life.”

“There’s a misperception that anesthesiologists aren’t ‘people’ people,” he added. “But the most important interaction I have is during the brief period when I meet the patient before surgery and they’re off asleep, because I need to get critical information about their health history, find out who’s going to take care of them after the procedure, and put them at ease during a very compressed time frame. To be able to do that effectively requires refined interpersonal skills,” something that has also been helpful in his time at the AMA.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, “I’ve had a lot of hard conversations about vaccines with my patients,” he said. “I’ve made a point of asking every patient if they’re vaccinated and if their family is vaccinated. Many say yes, some say no. Occasionally a patient will change their mind and decide that because we’ve had a conversation, they’re willing to get it.”

Ehrenfeld, who said he plans to still see patients every week while he’s serving as president-elect and president, attended his first AMA meeting 21 years ago. “It was the end of my first year of medical school,” he recalled. “I finished my coursework for the year and hopped in my car and drove 6 miles north to the Chicago Hilton.” As soon as he walked into the meeting, “I was mesmerized,” he said. “I remember seeing leaders of American medicine there trying to make things better for physicians and students, and I was hooked. I’ve always had a deep love of policy, and I’ve always been somebody who has wanted to contribute to solutions.”

He worked his way up the society ladder, starting as a student member of the Illinois State Medical Society board of trustees and eventually becoming an AMA board of trustees member in 2014. Although the issues being dealt with change over time, “at the end of the day, what I’ve noticed is the House of Medicine is always concerned about how we make the practice of medicine better and easier for patients and physicians,” he said. With the COVID pandemic, “how do we help physician practices recover? How do we make sure we support things like telehealth? Telehealth was not a hot topic 21 years ago, but it’s a critical topic today.”

As to his other priorities over the next few years, Ehrenfeld said he plans to focus on the elements of the AMA’s Recovery Plan for physicians, which was announced at the meeting and is aimed at helping doctors burned out from the pandemic. He listed the plan’s components: “supporting telehealth; making sure Medicare payments for physicians are reformed and work for us; stopping scope of practice creep; fixing prior authorization; and reducing physician burnout.”

As to how COVID-19 affected his own practice, “what I lived through was this initial moment of fear: walking into the hospital being very afraid for my family and for my safety; we didn’t know how to keep ourselves healthy,” he said. At the hospital, “we did drills to teach each other how to put on [personal protective equipment] safely, so we wouldn’t cross-contaminate when treating COVID patients … At the same time, elective surgeries did stop, and there was a lot of stress on our practice; we were very worried about our financial security.”

On the other hand, he also remembered walking to the hospital one day and seeing a lot of chalk art thanking the healthcare providers for their work. “Now we’re in a phase where we need to help physicians get beyond the exhaustion of the last 2 years,” he noted.

On the home front, Ehrenfeld — who is the association’s first openly gay president-elect — is married to Judd Taback, a government attorney who he met at a Fourth of July party on Long Island; they have a 3-year-old son, Ethan.

“I’ve seen the AMA become a much more inclusive organization for all of American medicine. It’s an important change, and it’s incredible to me to think about how far we’ve come in 175 years,” he said. “I could not be more excited to serve as a visible LGBTQ person in American medicine. I’ve gotten dozens of emails and messages in the last 24 hours from LGBT students in medical school saying how excited they are … It’s a recognition of what’s possible in the world today.”

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    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow