Relationships build organized medicine’s strength

A message to all physicians from AMA President Peter W. Carmel, MD.

By Peter W. Carmel, MDis a pediatric neurosurgeon in Newark, N.J., and is immediate past president of the AMA. Posted April 2, 2012.

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Recently, I was in Austin, Texas, to meet with physicians and visit the Texas Medical Assn. — the TMA. While I was there, I had a chance to talk about AMA accomplishments of the past few months and spend time with Lou Goodman, the longtime TMA executive.

With Goodman, I attended a TMA-sponsored event where officials from all the Texas county medical societies come together to touch base and report on their own local issues. This annual affair reflects the TMA’s efforts over the years to build and maintain good relationships with county and state specialty society groups. Today that effort extends to providing data, including membership information, to all of these separate societies. In some cases, the TMA provides Austin staff to the groups. And it has paid off in a good working relationship among the many medical organizations in Texas.

During my visit to Austin, I also was impressed with the TMA building itself. Although it was built to be TMA headquarters, almost three full floors of the building are leased as offices for about two dozen state and specialty groups.

Additionally, multiple conference rooms on every floor of the building and a large auditorium are available to any medical organization or related community group that wants to use them for meetings. This helps increase the already natural affinity among the groups, fosters conversation and really makes that building a house of Texas medicine.

Building relationships is important at any time, but right now with American health care in the throes of incredible change it is even more important. And in a period when membership organizations everywhere are having a tough time, Texas has managed to achieve an increase in members yearly for the past quarter-century.

Now Texas is our second most populous state, and there are a lot of doctors there so the TMA has a large medical population to draw from. However, the relationship-building and a grassroots effort that managed to change the state’s medical liability laws have kept the TMA vital.

Back in the early years of this century, when Texas doctors faced up to the fact that liability laws were discouraging many physicians from practicing in Texas, that insurance costs were soaring and at the same time the number of medical carriers was dwindling, it was Texas physicians themselves who were the moving force behind reforming the state’s medical liability laws.

While there were many different kinds of efforts involved in getting the Texas Legislature to finally pass liability reforms, a big part of the success was a result of a grass-roots push by the physicians themselves who made regular visits to the Capitol — in their white coats — to let legislators know how they felt.

The resulting 2003 Texas medical liability laws greatly improved the environment for practicing medicine in that state. Not surprising, according to the TMA’s Goodman, the momentum from that grass-roots success also carried organized medicine forward in Texas.

Today, eight years after passage of that landmark legislation, the TMA has 45,714 members, and groups of Texas physicians still regularly make visits to the state Capitol to tell legislators what’s on their minds.

It’s not unlike what happens in many other states, nor what AMA members do when they visit Washington. The AMA’s annual advocacy conference, for one, is a day when AMA members fan out across the Hill to talk with elected officials and their all-important staffers. And as those who have attended the National Advocacy Conference know, the very visible presence of hundreds of doctors in white coats grabs attention — even in offices that are not visited.

Even when there is not a crisis — and these days we seem to face crises almost daily — advocacy and issues management offer good opportunities for state and specialty societies to build relationships with their constituents.

The rest of us may not be able to share office space in the same building as they do in Austin, but the value of seeing each other in hallways, running into each other at meetings, and cross-pollinating organization activities cannot be underestimated as a source of an organization’s strength.

At the AMA, our House of Delegates is the place where the nation’s many state and specialty societies cross paths and share ideas. It is the policy-making body and our source of strength when we speak out as the Voice of Medicine.

The AMA supports state medical societies in a number of ways. We provide them with tool kits, which combine resources and knowledge from the AMA, state and specialty societies and outside organizations to help in carrying out advocacy campaigns (link).

As a way of furthering communication between and among the various societies, the AMA also publishes a “State Insider” e-newsletter of monthly highlights of state legislative, regulatory and legal activities. All of this is certainly about legally ensuring that physicians have a level playing field in which to do their work, but it also is about building and maintaining relationships in the medical community.

Further opportunities for relationship-building take place in the AMA’s two state legislative conferences every year. At these conferences, medical association leaders come together from across the country to coordinate campaign development, strategies and networking.

In our networked world, any pundit will tell you that today it’s all about relationships. In fact, that’s true. And relationship-building — either the way the TMA has done it over the years, or starting today by reaching out to constituents in behalf of the cause of 21st century medicine — can be a leg up in maintaining or even growing our nation’s physician organizations.

Peter W. Carmel, MD is a pediatric neurosurgeon in Newark, N.J., and is immediate past president of the AMA.

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