AMA Immediate Past President Ron Davis, MD, succumbs to pancreatic cancer

The leader leaves a legacy of promoting public health and preventive medicine.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted Nov. 24, 2008

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» View slide show: Ronald M. Davis, MD (1956-2008)

Ronald M. Davis, MD, the immediate past president of the American Medical Association and a longtime advocate of healthy lifestyles and ending health care disparities, died Nov. 6 of pancreatic cancer. He was 52.

"The health care community has lost an extraordinary leader," said AMA President Nancy H. Nielsen, MD, PhD.

A preventive medicine physician and director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Dr. Davis' AMA involvement began in 1980 as a member of the Medical Student Section. In 1984, he became the first resident member of the Board of Trustees. From there, he went on to hold numerous positions within the organization, culminating when delegates voted him president for a one-year term running from June 2007 to June 2008.

"He did a great deal to help the AMA to be a strong presence in public health and a respected voice on many public health issues," said Dave Cundiff, MD, MPH, secretary of the American Assn. of Public Health Physicians.

Dr. Davis won numerous awards, and in February he gave the guest lecture at the annual conference of the American College of Preventive Medicine, an organization he had long represented at AMA meetings. Always known for exemplifying the healthy lifestyle he advocated, he delivered a speech on the importance of exercise in medicine while walking on a treadmill.

"There's an art and science to medicine, and an art and science to advocating policy. He mastered both," said Michael Parkinson, MD, MPH, the organization's president.

Those who worked with Dr. Davis particularly remember his efforts to educate the public on the health impact of tobacco use, reduce racial inequality in the medical setting and be an example of how to live with an illness that has a grim prognosis.

With regard to smoking cessation, he was the director of the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1987 to 1991. From 1991 to 1998, he was the founding editor of Tobacco Control. Before the journal's creation, "it was hard to get articles published in the field, and there was no journal specifically with tobacco as its focus. [Tobacco Control] was just enormous for the movement," said Tom Houston, MD, director of the OhioHealth Nicotine Dependence Program in Columbus. Dr. Houston was the director of science and public advocacy at the AMA from 1990 to 2003.

Dr. Davis also testified numerous times on the subject to government bodies on the federal, state and local levels. He published dozens of scientific papers on smoking, on issues ranging from the promotion of cigarettes in developing countries and the link between passive smoking and cancer in pets, to physician involvement in helping patients quit.

On the subject of race, he was the co-chair of the Commission to End Health Care Disparities and led the American Medical Association's apology in July to African-American physicians for the organization's history of racial inequality.

"We are now a better place because he was here," said Nelson Adams, MD, past president of the National Medical Assn.

In February, the man who so many called a consummate educator announced he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He used this challenge as an opportunity to teach many physicians and serve as an example about how to live with a disease.

"He had such courage to go public with his disease, and not just fold in on yourself and tend to your loved ones," Dr. Nielsen said.

He posted regular updates to the online and, although he said he was cutting back his schedule, still stayed very involved. He appeared at the AMA Annual Meeting in June a little leaner, a little more tired than usual, but happy. He gave a speech, including jokes about the benefits of his newly developed baldness, to a standing ovation.

"When you hear a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, every doctor knows what that means. You have that sinking feeling. What he said was very, very important," Dr. Nielsen said.

Dr. Davis said, "Never take away someone's hope."

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Life at a glance

June 18, 1956-Nov. 6, 2008

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; chair, Specialty and Service Society; chair, Council on Science and Public Health; member, Board of Trustees; AMA liaison, Advisory Committee for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; president.

Notable achievements: Worked to promote healthy lifestyles with a particular focus on reducing tobacco use through his work as director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit from 1995 until his death. He also was the chief medical officer at the Michigan Dept. of Public Health from 1991 to 1995 and the director of the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1987 to 1991. Involved in efforts to reduce health care disparities and co-chaired the Commission to End Health Care Disparities. Led the American Medical Association to apologize in July to African-American physicians for the organization's history of racism.

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External links

AMA press release on the death of Immediate Past President Ronald M. Davis, MD, Nov. 7 (link)

AMA video tribute to Ron Davis, MD (link)

Dr. Davis' farewell address at the opening session of the AMA House of Delegates, June 14 (link)

Ronald M. Davis, MD, University of Michigan School of Public Health (link)

"Achieving Racial Harmony for the Benefit of Patients and Communities," Journal of the American Medical Association, July 16 (link)

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