Strengthening medicine for the long run
■ Incoming AMA President Jeremy A. Lazarus, MD, says he hopes to use his skills to help physicians find common ground on complex issues.
By Carolyne Krupa — Posted May 28, 2012
Jeremy A. Lazarus, MD, has traveled the world participating in grueling athletic events. He has completed 13 marathons and 13 Ironman triathlons. Now he is preparing for a new kind of endurance test.
On June 19, the Denver psychiatrist will be inaugurated as president of the American Medical Association. During his year in the post, he will spend more than 200 days traveling throughout the country and abroad, speaking with physicians, students, health professionals and others to champion the AMA’s initiatives.
Dr. Lazarus said it’s a crucial time in medicine, and he welcomes the challenge.
“Things are changing in the way care is delivered,” he said. “I will be in a position to help make physicians aware of what those changes are, what they can do to prepare for them and how the AMA can help.”
Richert Quinn Jr., MD, has known Dr. Lazarus for 20 years and said he will be an articulate spokesman.
“He has been successful at every level, and people look up to him for his leadership,” said Dr. Quinn, a general surgeon from Greeley, Colo. and member of the AMA Senior Physicians Group. “He’s somebody you can really hold up as a role model for the profession.”
In addition to being a physician and an athlete, Dr. Lazarus, 68, is a musician. He has performed on stage numerous times, directed synagogue choirs in Chicago and Denver, and sung with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Central City Opera Chorus in Central City, Colo., and Colorado Chorale in Denver.
His many talents and interests make him especially well-suited to represent physicians, said longtime friend and colleague Dick Allen, MD, a Portland, Ore., obstetrician-gynecologist and the 2007 recipient of the AMA Distinguished Service Award.
“The fact that Jerry has other interests outside of medicine adds to his resume as a physician leader. It makes him someone who is real, personable and friendly,” Dr. Allen said.
A call to lead
Dr. Lazarus has been active in organized medicine for more than two decades and has served in leadership roles in the American Psychiatric Assn., the Colorado Medical Society and what was then the Arapahoe County Medical Society. He became an AMA alternate delegate in 1993 and was elected to the AMA Board of Trustees in 2003.
About 16 years ago, a personal health scare drove him to step up his involvement. During a trip to Vail, Colo., he developed a life-threatening acute intestinal blockage. He was in surgery within 12 hours, and spent more than a week in the hospital.
The experience was startling, especially for someone who was so physically fit.
“It came out of the blue,” said his wife, Debbie. “It was a very shocking experience. He was always very healthy and suddenly he could have been gone.”
Dr. Lazarus took the health scare as another challenge. Instead of slowing him down, it pushed him to do more of the things he had always intended to do. He ran for AMA vice speaker and president of the Colorado Medical Society and won both races. He also edited his second book: Entering Private Practice: A Handbook for Psychiatrists.
He saw being involved in the AMA as an opportunity to have a broader positive impact on health care. Some of the issues he has advocated for are ensuring more physicians and other health professionals are trained to treat military veterans, providing access to care for the uninsured and repealing the Independent Payment Advisory Board.
Dr. Lazarus said he hopes to help doctors find common ground despite different backgrounds, specialties and practice models.
“I think the AMA has to have an open tent and represent the views of everyone,” he said. “We may take care of patients in different ways, but we need to work together.”
A lifelong love of music
Dr. Lazarus was raised with a love for music by his mother, who was a professional singer and music teacher. He had voice training until he was in his 30s and plays the saxophone, violin and guitar. In medical school, he and a friend sang at synagogues, bar mitzvahs and other events to help pay the bills.
Today, Dr. Lazarus keeps his music skills alive by playing in a band with three physician friends. Dr. Feelgood’s Folk Remedy was formed about 15 years ago and includes Dr. Lazarus on guitar, Dr. Allen on banjo and Mark Levine, MD, on guitar.
The trio mostly play at medical association meetings, including gatherings of the AMA and the Colorado Medical Society. They perform songs by the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, and have a bent toward music with a medical theme. Tunes such as “The Ballad of the Colorectal Surgeon” and the “Ballad of Sigmund Freud” always are favorites among physician audiences, Dr. Lazarus said.
The first time they played for a large audience was a surprise performance at the Colorado Medical Society’s annual conference. They dressed alike in khaki pants and striped shirts.
“The looks on the faces in the audience were priceless,” said Dr. Allen, a former CMS president. “Here you had major leadership of CMS, and no one knew that we could sing anything.”
Dr. Lazarus is a good musician, friend and physician, said Dr. Levine, chief medical officer for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services office in Denver and clinical professor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine.
“There is a difficult balance between being personable and professional. Jeremy has always managed to be both,” he said.
A close-knit family
Dr. Lazarus grew up in Chicago and got a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Northwestern University. He graduated with honors from the University of Illinois College of Medicine.
During his second year of medical school, he met his future wife, Debbie. She spent 10 years of her childhood in Israel and is fluent in Hebrew. In a “surreptitious arrangement,” Dr. Lazarus’ mother asked Debbie to come over to help her translate some Hebrew and introduced her to her son.
“He was really, really different — very honest and sincere,” Debbie Lazarus said. “We told [his mother] that was probably the best thing she ever did for us was introduce us. She picked well.”
At their wedding in a Chicago hotel, Dr. Lazarus surprised his bride with a song. “When I came in with my parents, I just stopped and he sang ‘And This Is My Beloved’ from ‘Kismet,’ ” she said. “It was fabulous.”
The couple have been married 45 years and love spending time with their three sons and eight grandchildren. Their oldest son, Steven, 45, is a psychologist in Littleton, Colo. Their middle son, Ethan, 42, is a family physician in Denver who specializes in bariatric medicine. Their youngest, David, 38, runs a day trading company in Miami Beach, Fla., and is married to dermatologist Melissa Lazarus, MD.
Opportunity in Denver
After medical school, Dr. Lazarus did a mixed medical internship at Michael Reese Hospital, in Chicago, which has since closed. In 1969, he got a residency position at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, and he and his wife made the move to Denver with their first son, who was 2 at the time.
It was a good career opportunity, and Denver offered a good quality of life. “We just knew this was the right place to raise sons,” Debbie Lazarus said.
Dr. Lazarus said he chose psychiatry because he is intensely interested in understanding how people think and behave. “It fascinated me the way people tick,” he said.
He did a three-year residency in general psychiatry and was chief resident his third year. He then worked at the Veterans Affairs Eastern Colorado Health Care System, where he saw patients with conditions including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders and various addictions.
He has spent much of his career in private practice and still sees patients, many of whom he has treated for 10 to 20 years. Beyond his practice, Dr. Lazarus is a clinical professor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine and a voluntary professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine.
It was during his residency that Dr. Lazarus became a runner. About five years after completing his residency, he ran his first marathon. At age 41, he finished his first triathlon. Competitions have taken him to Hawaii, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and Australia.
“It just feels good to be able to finish something like that,” he said. “I was pretty lucky. I never got injured or hurt. It was hard, but it was always great finishing.”
When he can, Dr. Lazarus runs about 6½ miles a day on a trail behind his house.
He and Debbie, who has run seven marathons herself, also like to ride their tandem bicycle on long treks. They have biked together on trips up to 500 miles along the countrysides of France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Ireland.
“A unique opportunity”
As a physician, Dr. Lazarus said he believes he has helped thousands of patients. As AMA president, he hopes to help thousands of physicians help their patients.
“It’s very obvious when you’re helping one person,” he said. “Feedback is very immediate. But with the AMA, things can take many years. The reach is broader, but the immediate gratification is slower in coming.”
Rochester, N.Y., psychiatrist John “Jack” McIntyre, MD, has known Dr. Lazarus for 30 years through the American Psychiatric Assn. He describes him as warm, engaging and tenacious.
“He’s really a remarkable person, and he has an incredibly broad interest in many aspects of health care,” said Dr. McIntyre, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester, former APA president and a member of the AMA Council on Medical Service. “He has great endurance in pursuing issues to workable solutions. He leads by example. You see him and you want to emulate him.”
Serving as AMA president is always a challenging and critical role for the profession, Dr. Levine said. Regardless of whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act survives the U.S. Supreme Court, the public recognizes health care system reform is necessary, he said.
“This is a particularly challenging time because of all of the opportunities that are ahead of us,” Dr. Levine said. “Jeremy, I think, is going to have a unique opportunity.”