Active agenda: Promoting better health through policy and personal example

Incoming AMA President Ron Davis, MD, brings vast experience in preventive medicine and public health to his new position.

By Damon Adams — Posted June 11, 2007

Print  |   Email  |   Respond  |   Reprints  |   Like Facebook  |   Share Twitter  |   Tweet Linkedin

The photo is one of many on his laptop, tucked away with images of his family wakeboarding on a lake and taking a raucous roller coaster ride at Universal Studios.

It was taken more than 30 years ago when Ron Davis, MD, was a high school student. The lanky teen from Illinois is pictured in Ecuador giving a shot to a girl, one of 500 children he vaccinated against measles through a program in the South American country.

"I was interested in Spanish and I was also interested in medicine. My mother had talked to me about becoming a doctor for a long time, so that seemed like a great opportunity," Dr. Davis said over coffee recently in his East Lansing, Mich., home.

"We vaccinated kids in very poor areas of the country, and I remember some of the towns we traveled to, we could only get to by mule. We stayed with local families in these shack huts. It was a really unique sort of experience, which I think helped shape me as a person in recognizing that most of the people in the world do not enjoy the wealth and the material goods that we do."

The 1973 Ecuador trip was early inspiration for what would become a career devoted to preventive medicine and public health. In public- and private-sector jobs, Dr. Davis has promoted immunizations, tackled smoking, fought obesity and pressed for healthy living.

When the Michigan physician takes over as president of the American Medical Association this month, he will lead an organization whose advocacy agenda includes promoting healthy lifestyles, expanding health insurance coverage for the uninsured and preparing for and responding to public health emergencies.

In other words, he'll be right at home.

"As a preventive medicine physician, I will focus whenever I can on the big public health issues that we're working on," Dr. Davis said.

Doctors and friends said that will be good for patients, physicians and the AMA.

"It's great to see somebody in the leadership of the AMA who has a very strong track record in prevention and public policy," said Mark A. Kelley, MD, executive vice president of Henry Ford Health System, in Detroit, where Dr. Davis is director of the health system's Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Dr. Davis also brings youth to the AMA presidency. He is among the youngest physicians to become president in recent years. He will be 51 when he is installed as president June 26 during the AMA's 2007 Annual Meeting.

"One of the reasons why I wanted to serve as president as a younger physician is because I think we need to change the face of the AMA," Dr. Davis said. "For the AMA to effectively represent the profession and to reach out to the whole cross-section of the physician population and to get them to join the AMA and to participate in the AMA, we have to have leaders who reflect the diversity of the physician population."

Dr. Davis was born in Chicago. He spent his youth in Columbus, Ohio, then moved as a teen to Highland Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb. He played on the Highland Park High School tennis team when it tied for the state championship in 1973.

Several months ago, the school said it was inducting him into its hall of fame for being part of the team. He couldn't attend due to his schedule but responded with typical dry wit: "I told her that my athletic career really did not take off after I left high school but I appreciated the honor."

After high school, Dr. Davis went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he met Nadine, his future wife, in the study lounge of their co-ed dorm. He graduated from the university, then earned a master's degree in public policy at the University of Chicago. He received his medical degree in 1983 from the university's Pritzker School of Medicine.

Dr. Davis was the first resident physician member of the AMA Board of Trustees from 1984 to 1987. Between 1987 and 2001, he represented the American College of Preventive Medicine in the AMA House of Delegates, first as an alternate delegate, then as a delegate. In 1996-97, he was chair of the AMA Specialty and Service Society, a consortium of about 100 national medical specialty societies represented in the House of Delegates.

He was elected to the AMA Board of Trustees in 2001 and re-elected in 2005.

"Ron is a wonderful ambassador for physicians. He speaks to younger physicians with families, to women, to minorities and to the diversity that is the AMA's strength. As a preventive medicine specialist, he embodies the AMA's dedication to the public's health," said friend Marc L. Rivo, MD, MPH, corporate medical director of health services research and innovation for AvMed Health Plans in Miami Beach, Fla.

Alabama family physician Regina Benjamin, MD, remembers hearing Dr. Davis speak to residents at an AMA meeting more than 20 years ago. She was encouraged by his anti-smoking message and joined other physicians locally to fight tobacco issues.

"Every step of the way, he was always encouraging us to get involved and stay involved," said Dr. Benjamin, incoming vice chair of the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs. "Because tobacco was one of our big causes, we looked up to him because he stood up for what he believed in, and I saw how things changed for standing up for what you believe in.

"He made us feel you could go up against this big Goliath and make a difference."

Following training at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Davis served as director of the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health from 1987 to 1991. He was chief medical officer in the Michigan Dept. of Public Health from 1991 to 1995. Since September 1995, he has been director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the Henry Ford Health System. He oversees a program that helps about 800 patients stop smoking each year through counseling and medication. An employee wellness program includes screening for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Dr. Davis leads his staff of 15 by commuting 1½ hours from East Lansing to Detroit or by communicating via phone and e-mail. On days he drives into the city, the trip is made easier by listening to books on tape, something his wife hooked him on.

"If I'm in the middle of a Tom Clancy book, I don't mind the commute at all," said Dr. Davis, who likes to listen to mysteries and has finished the Harry Potter books on tape.

Promoting healthy lifestyles

Dr. Davis has received many honors for his preventive medicine and public health efforts. Among them: Surgeon General's Medallion; American College of Preventive Medicine's Distinguished Service Award; World Health Organization's World No-Tobacco Day Medal and Award; and American Thoracic Society's Distinguished Service Award.

For years, he has been an anti-smoking advocate, writing and lecturing on tobacco-related diseases. He has testified about smoking before state and federal leaders, and he continues to be passionate about the topic. Dr. Davis oversaw the production of surgeon general's reports that detailed the impact of cigarettes on health and changed views on nicotine addiction.

Many states have increased tobacco taxes, and such actions have decreased sales of cigarettes, he said.

"Price policy has been shown to be enormously influential in controlling the consumption of dangerous products," Dr. Davis said.

Doctors, he said, can do a better job of intervening on tobacco issues with patients by asking about smoking in the clinical encounter, advising patients to quit, assessing their motivation to quit, assisting patients in kicking the habit and arranging follow-ups.

"Some doctors do some of that, but a lot of doctors don't do all of it," he said.

Patients can do more to improve the quality of their lives, and doctors need to set good examples for healthy behavior, Dr. Davis said.

"Doctors who aren't following healthy lifestyles themselves, first of all, are probably not going to counsel on healthy lifestyles nearly as much. If they do, patients might see through that. Patients will see if we're not practicing what we preach."

Dr. Davis lives the lifestyle he promotes. The slender doctor works out on an exercise bike at his home (listening to books on tape). During a recent phone interview from a hotel, his dinner was chicken noodle soup, grapefruit juice and salad with tuna.

"I have to confess it was difficult to resist rack of lamb," he joked.

AMA delegates won't find beef on the menu during Dr. Davis' inauguration dinner. Expect chicken and fish, salad and maybe a sorbet and fresh fruit for dessert. He's all for having healthier meals at physician meetings.

His wife and their three sons, Jared, Evan and Connor will be at the inauguration. Evan and Jared are pre-med at the University of Michigan. Connor attends high school and keeps his dad on his toes on the tennis court.

With his busy schedule, Dr. Davis doesn't have much spare time, though he catches the TV show "24" when he can or has Connor fill him in on missed episodes. Years ago, Dr. Davis and Nadine were "Star Trek" fans, and Dr. Davis still considers himself a "trekker." The couple once went to a Star Trek convention and met a fan dressed as Mr. Spock who gave the Vulcan sign and said, "Live long and prosper," to Nadine, who was pregnant with Connor at the time. Two hours later, she went into labor.

"We were really concerned that Connor would be born with pointy ears," Dr. Davis jested.

Now he's looking forward to taking on the AMA presidency and focusing on all of the issues on the organization's advocacy agenda. In July, he will speak at a gathering on health system readiness co-sponsored by the AMA and CDC. During the next year, fellow physicians see good things ahead for Dr. Davis and the AMA.

"He is a very level-headed, pragmatic and effective leader," said Kenneth Warner, PhD, dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, where Dr. Davis is an adjunct professor of epidemiology. "I've yet to see him in a position where he didn't do a first-class job."

Back to top


Ron Davis, MD

Specialty: Preventive medicine

Home: East Lansing, Mich.

Medical education: University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine

Family: Wife, Nadine; three children, Jared, Evan and Connor

AMA positions: First resident physician member, Board of Trustees; former chair, Council on Science and Public Health; former chair, Specialty and Service Society; member, Board of Trustees; AMA liaison, Advisory Committee for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other posts: Board member, Wayne County Medical Society Foundation; member, American College of Preventive Medicine Policy Committee; member, Michigan State Medical Society Public Health Committee; former board member, The Joint Commission; former chair, Medicare Coverage Advisory Committee.

Back to top



Read story

Confronting bias against obese patients

Medical educators are starting to raise awareness about how weight-related stigma can impair patient-physician communication and the treatment of obesity. Read story

Read story


American Medical News is ceasing publication after 55 years of serving physicians by keeping them informed of their rapidly changing profession. Read story

Read story

Policing medical practice employees after work

Doctors can try to regulate staff actions outside the office, but they must watch what they try to stamp out and how they do it. Read story

Read story

Diabetes prevention: Set on a course for lifestyle change

The YMCA's evidence-based program is helping prediabetic patients eat right, get active and lose weight. Read story

Read story

Medicaid's muddled preventive care picture

The health system reform law promises no-cost coverage of a lengthy list of screenings and other prevention services, but some beneficiaries still might miss out. Read story

Read story

How to get tax breaks for your medical practice

Federal, state and local governments offer doctors incentives because practices are recognized as economic engines. But physicians must know how and where to find them. Read story

Read story

Advance pay ACOs: A down payment on Medicare's future

Accountable care organizations that pay doctors up-front bring practice improvements, but it's unclear yet if program actuaries will see a return on investment. Read story

Read story

Physician liability: Your team, your legal risk

When health care team members drop the ball, it's often doctors who end up in court. How can physicians improve such care and avoid risks? Read story

  • Stay informed
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • RSS
  • LinkedIn