Dr. Gerald Harmon, vice president of medical affairs at Tidelands Health, is soon to be the new president of the American Medical Association (AMA).
With his more than 30 years as a family medicine physician and his 19 years working with the AMA, Harmon said he looks forward to bringing the dynamic he shares with his patients to the national stage.
“It’s nice to have a frontline doctor, who is in small-town America and has been so for four decades — that perspective, I think, is important,” Harmon said. “I get the blessing and the opportunity to be a doctor where people choose me, and I have instant credibility because I have the white coat on.”
Harmon said becoming AMA president at such a pivotal moment in protecting the public health has tested the healthcare system as well as the mission of the association.
“We were starting to become polarized before we had the pandemic — no question of it — but the polarization has apparently gotten worse,” Harmon said. “What the pandemic has done is expose weaknesses in the system. It exposed the fact that certain communities of color, people in underprivileged areas in the nation and in our service area couldn’t freely access vaccinations, couldn’t freely access testing, couldn’t even freely access some of the treatments we had. Once we got them into the system, they got absolutely good care, and so there were no health disparities in treatment, just getting access to the treatments.”
Dr. Casey Mann, a family physician at Tidelands Health in Pawley’s Island, has been working with Harmon for 12 years. Mann said he has been telling patients Harmon would become the next president of AMA for a while.
“I was not surprised because from day one he has been very involved with the AMA for the entire time I’ve been here at this practice,” Mann said. “He’s such an accomplished person: he was in the Air Force; he’s a fighter pilot; he’s a two-star general; he’s very active in our community.”
During his military career, Harmon served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Mann said Harmon sets a good example because of how devoted he is to his patients and those he works with.
“I think he’s a leader,” Mann said. “You know, there’s the type of general who’s in the fight, leading the charge, and there’s the general who’s instructing at a distance, not getting their hands dirty. He’s definitely in the trenches fighting for his patients and he loves what he does. He’s very good at it, so it’s a great fit.”
Harmon said the AMA has three strategic focuses: removing barriers of access to healthcare, enhancing training for physicians and bettering public health by improving health outcomes.
“That’s pretty broad; that’s like world peace.” Harmon said. “You pick things you can attack. We’ve focused over the last couple of years on diabetes and cardiovascular disease, thinking those are two things in everyone’s area, particularly here in the Lowcountry. Those are our two local focuses and national focuses as well.”
In addition to these focuses, Harmon said it was also important to confront entrenched social issues.
“That’s one of the challenges I think we’re going to have in the AMA,” Harmon said. “We have what we call ‘accelerators’ to improve those strategic arcs. One of the accelerators is advancing health equity. I can take that accelerator and help educate doctors and help improve health outcomes for the marginalized communities. And I can reduce barriers to care so that it’s not a lack of bandwidth, so they can make their appointments.”
And this is a problem that Harmon has already been working on. As chairman of the AMA board of trustees in 2017, he established a Health Equity Task Force. He asked the task force a year later to compile a report about the disparities in access to healthcare. Consequently, in 2018 they created the Center for Health Equity, which was charged with creating a health equity plan. Only a month ago, it issued that plan — an 84-page document that encompasses the history of the issue and sets forth the AMA’s three-year strategic plan to address inequality in the healthcare system.
Additionally, Harmon said one avenue the AMA takes is influencing governmental agencies, such as the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration. It also lobbies legislative bodies at both the state and federal levels. For instance, the AMA reviewed whether the vaccines were developed appropriately, when they would be released, what the educational requirements are for doctors and medical students and the regulations about hospitals. In fact, the Joint Commission, which is a national organization that aims to improve the safety and efficacy of public healthcare, was founded by the AMA and the American Hospital Association.
“So, all these governing bodies we have a footprint in and we manage to help,” Harmon said. “We don’t direct, but we give input and perspective.”
According to Harmon, the AMA will also help distribute vaccines in community spaces, such as churches and schools.
Harmon earned his bachelor's from the University of South Carolina and attended the Medical University of South Carolina. He then spent his residency at the U.S. Air Force Regional Hospital.
Initially, Harmon said he pursued these experiences without yet knowing that he wanted be a doctor.
“My interest in medicine came about almost by accident, by happenstance — I like to think by fate,” Harmon said. “I’m a very religious person. I think it was God’s plan for me. When I was in college, I had no idea I would be a doctor. We had some disruption in our family where my father became fatally ill. It was almost day-to-day living, so I didn’t have this grand plan. I was offered an opportunity to get a military scholarship to medical school, and wound up in medicine.”
More personally, a close relationship had unwittingly inspired him to pursue this path.
“I was probably drawn to medicine because my wife was a career nurse,” Harmon said. “So she’s one of my role models. I didn’t realize it. I think one of my biggest driving factors is my wife.”
Mann also said Harmon is always willing to take initiative in confronting new problems and he knows he’ll successfully rise to the occasion of serving as AMA president.
“It’s our biggest organization as American physicians and he’s going to be leading it; that’s quite the honor,” Mann said. “It just gives us even more credibility. It’s funny: he talks about being a small-town doctor, but when you think about small towns, you don’t necessarily think about cutting-edge. But he’s always on the cutting-edge of things. He was leading the charge in treating COVID patients. He’s always got the answer. My question is, ‘When does he sleep?’ because he’s always so busy and effective in what he’s doing.”
Harmon's family medicine practices transitioned to Tidelands in 2014. He said his prior experiences, especially with the AMA, have given him an invaluable amount of perspective for his leadership position.
“Between being from a small town — born in Newberry — and then being in the military gives me a real wide experience,” Harmon said. “I have been to other countries that don’t have nearly the healthcare infrastructure of the United States. America is very blessed but we’ve also earned it. I know people will throw darts at [our healthcare system] but still, when you’re sick, this is where you want to go. We’re doing the best we can to raise everybody up.”