CHICAGO -- Amid a seemingly endless period of national and international public health crises, the American Medical Association turned to Dr. Ronald Davis for a key leadership role in the future of the nation's largest doctor group.
A preventive medicine specialist from East Lansing, Mich., Davis was elected last week by the AMA's policymaking House of Delegates to serve as the organization's president-elect, a key part of a three-person team that speaks on behalf of the group on critical issues.
Davis will serve as president-elect until next June. He will then become president and a year later will serve as the "immediate past president" until June 2009.
In Davis, who turns 50 today, the AMA is getting a spokesman well-versed in public health issues and prevention of sickness.
Among key AMA concerns are tobacco, obesity and immunizations, AMA delegates said during last week's annual meeting at the Chicago Hilton.
"Big public health issues never seem to go away," Davis said in an interview after the five-day annual meeting. "They may change from year to year, but it seems like there are always big issues out there. I will be the first AMA president to have a board certification in preventive medicine."
Public health will take on greater importance for the AMA with Davis in the leadership team, say those who know him. He will provide a contrast with recent AMA leaders who have operated their own patient-care practices or worked in small groups of doctors.
For example, Dr. William Plested, 70, who was inaugurated as president last week, is a thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon from Brentwood, Calif. Departing president Edward Hill, 68, is a family physician from Tupelo, Miss.
All three physicians will work to carry out the AMA's agenda, which has become more focused in the past two years as the association tries to address the real concerns of physicians and their patients.
"Everybody talks about finances and expensive health care, and those issues will have to be addressed," said Dr. Richard Smith, an obstetrician at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit who works with Davis. "He knows about health care in the broader sense. He always works with groups, coalitions and industry, and brings people together."
At Henry Ford, Davis is the director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, where, Smith said, Davis has been effective in establishing community programs on issues including smoking cessation and prenatal medical care.
At the AMA, consensus and a focused agenda have become more important as the organization tries to move beyond credibility hits in the last decade that caused membership to spiral downward.
One major problem was an embarrassing marketing deal with Sunbeam Corp. in the late 1990s. That deal, in which Sunbeam would have paid the AMA to endorse certain of the firm's products, ended with the AMA paying the consumer-products firm $10 million to get out.
Although overall membership is still down slightly, to nearly 250,000 at the end of 2005, the AMA is slowly increasing membership of dues-paying doctors. The group credits a reallocation of its $20 million marketing budget to showcase the organization as being in touch with everyday physicians and their patients.
In addition, the group, for the second straight year, adopted a specific agenda with several items that target "the most important issues facing medicine," its advocacy agenda says.
In the next year, for example, public health is key among its six focal points. The others are medical liability reform, Medicare payment increases for doctors, expanding access for the uninsured, patient safety and managed-care reform.
"One of the challenges of the AMA is to communicate to members, all physicians and the public when some believe the AMA cares only about doctors' pocketbook issues, and that is obviously not the case," Davis said. "Public health is one of our six prongs. That announces loudly that public health is front and center."
Bruce Japsen writes for the Chicago Tribune.