Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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What's The AMA all About?

The American Medical Association feels unappreciated and misunderstood, and that is indeed a pretty accurate appraisal of things. In 1976, when I was offered an opportunity to be nominated to the AMA House of Delegates, I naturally was flattered to represent a thousand physicians. But I must admit that an extra incentive was the opportunity to learn what the AMA was all about. Since that is not exactly a superior qualification for election. I kept it quiet until now, but I can tell you that it is a very common feeling among new delegates. Even up to the time of being invited to give this lecture, my thoughts were formless or subliminal, and it is actually a welcome opportunity for me finally to coagulate my thoughts in order to say something useful to you tonight. Some would say, it is about time I made up my mind.

It seems helpful to begin with a broad historical perspective. Most of you know that the AMA was founded in Philadelphia in 1847 and that this Philadelphia County Medical Society is older than the AMA, and older than the Pennsylvania Medical Society. That was entirely natural, since Abraham Lincoln was then a small child in a log cabin in the forests of Illinois, whereas Spruce Street was lined with mansions, and the Pennsylvania Hospital was one of less than a dozen hospitals in the whole country. Things changed dramatically during the Nineteenth Century, but it would be important for you to recognize that by the year 1900, only seven percent of American physicians were members of the AMA. The AMA was founded as an elite brotherhood, adhering to a Hippocratic Code of Ethics, protected by stringent entrance restrictions, and internally disciplined by active boards of censors. If you were a member of the AMA and had not yet been thrown out, the public could be assured that you pledged active allegiance to Code of Ethics.

Well, as you know, the news media now jeer, and the AMA now despairs, that membership has declined to slightly less than half of all practicing physicians, a fact which is probably correctly attributed mostly to the rather high dues. Again, you should know that at the peak of membership in the 1930s, when it is fair to say that almost every physician was a member, the dues were free.

What happened to the ama was the Flexner Report in 1914. At that point, the AMA enlarged its traditional posture of self-discipline in a naughty world to active involvement in the processes by which medical excellence is produced. The Flexner report was devoted to examining the scientific content of the medical educational process and membership in the AMA came to stand for scientific as well as ethical excellence. Without intending for it to happen, the AMA had stumbled on the real secret of medical prestige, and after that, the AMA had no problems with attracting membership.

Throughout the Nineteenth Century, the major accomplishment of the AMA had been to establish the state licensing process. As a result of its formative activity in lobbying legislatures to create state boards of medical licensure, and it's later spectacular success in specifying the best medical educational process, the AMA has long played an influential, indeed dominant role in both areas. The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals was another AMA project, and so was Blue Shield. None of these secondary power centers (now dominant in licensing, education, hospital regulation, and health insurance) was established as an AMA vassal,but their formats were established from the beginning using the AMA model, their early leaders were all AMA leaders, and to this day, the AMA is certainly where to be if you want to learn the ropes. It must surely be frustrating to the enemies of the AMA to see how fruitless it has been to resist the power of the AMA in these areas, because so much intangible power rests in the experience, savvy, and contacts of the AMA in these areas, because so much intangible power rests in the experience, savvy, and contacts of the AMA leadership. They know where the bodies are buried, and they know all about the personalities and politics of the process. You could spend three lifetimes as an outsider just trying to learn what is going on. By the time you learned, the situation would have shifted just enough so the information wouldn't do you any good.

So, you can see that in some ways the AMA is an object lesson in the way that society often gives power to idealistic leaders, and then Idealism struggles to check the corrupting pressures of Power. The ancient Greeks thought it was a good idea to have philosopher kings, but history teaches us that even they acted more like kings than philosophers. Since this seems to be the universal nature of human behavior, it is vital that we search for self-regulating mechanisms in our institutions. The one I suggest for the AMA is the very unpopular suggestion that we be careful how we lower the dues, and we must never achieve automatic membership of the entire physician community. We must be cautious of defining success in the Morris Fishbein sense of getting rid of all dues because then the staff and leadership won't need to solicit membership. When we stop scratching and scrabbling for members, the members lose their ultimate power to impose their wishes on the organization. No one now needs to sign a petition or make a speech, and it is definitely counterproductive to threaten the leadership that you are going to resign. Rather, the invisible hand of the perceived wishes of the membership is raised in every vote at every Trustee meeting we must care of this or that, we must be careful of our image, else the membership might not like it. The paradox is that the AMA is now much more representative of members than it ever was in its heyday. When Morris Fishbein was coining a fortune in cigarettes advertising in the JAMA, the wishes of the membership be damned.

The thought I would next pursue is that the bumper stickers, paraphrased as "If you don't like the AMA just try to practice medicine without it." The . AMA is the largest medical publisher in the world, and while New England Journal has more prestige at the moment, it wouldn't take a charismatic editor more than five years to put the JAMA back on top of the prestige heap. The AMA News is by far the best medical newspaper in the world, and it supplies an absolutely unique information role.

The AMA has a program in the health care within our prisons which has almost no visibility, but which I can assure you is something you can be very proud of as a humanitarian effort conducted for its own sake. The AMA is extremely active in such abstruse but vital projects as creating medical nomenclature coding, uniform insurance billing forms, medical manpower surveys, health economics monitoring, and clearinghouses for personal exchanges. Whenever we have had a war or physicians draft, the AMA has been the only organization capable of coordinating the civilian and Military medical needs of the country. The AMA seems to be the only organizations which give a hoot about the Veterans Administration or military medicine. There is a very large building in Chicago filled with a thousand salaried people doing many other very necessary things, and doing them quite creditably, without getting very much public credit for it.

The United States of America is a republic, not a democracy as we sometimes tend to say. The American Medical Association is a much purer form of a republic, and its retention of some republican forms which the National government has lost has been a very useful political education for me. I take my seat in the House of Delegates by presenting a little yellow card, signed by the current president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society. If I have the card, I am seated; no card, no card. The cards are given to the State societies in the proportion of one card for every thousand AMA members. The AMA sees to it that the State Society Presidents are in person at the meeting to adjudicate credentials disputes. States may elect their delegates in any way they like and there are several methods. In Pennsylvania, the election is made by the Pennsylvania Medical Society House of Delegates, where membership is roughly one for every hundred members, sitting by countries. Philadelphia County has 30 delegates, and three AMA delegates, although there is nothing official about that.

The AMA House of Delegates meets twice a year for a week. Since you cannot retain your seat without tending to the political fences, a delegate must also attend the state and local meetings. A delegate must thus expect to devote four full weeks a year to the experience, and he need not expect to be influential at the AMA until he has been there at least five years. The AMA delegates feel very strongly about personal commitment; you can be tolerated if you are pretty eccentric, but if you don't come to a meeting, you are instantly ostracised, and probably will be quickly replaced.

The delegates have two main duties. They are an electoral college and they are a legislative body. The House of Delegates elects the President of the AMA and the Trustees, who run the organization between meetings of the House. The House also elects the members of four Councils, who are the specialists in matters of science, legislation, medical practice, and governance. The 70 officers, trustees, and councilors are the leadership, the Curia so to speak, and House of Delegates meetings are highly charged with the politics of these elections as well as the shadow of elections coming in future years. I am inclined to think the candidates take the elections too seriously and the delegates do not take them seriously enough, but it is a matter about which you cannot be entirely certain. There is absolutely no doubt that every delegate has ample opportunity to know every candidate very well, and it is likely that the House makes relatively few mistakes in its choices.

Acting in its legislative role, the House of Delegates usually receives a very thick handbook of agenda, two weeks before every meeting. Most newcomers are overwhelmed by the unexpected volume of detail and are quite unprepared for the ensuing experience of holding up their hands and voting on two or three hundred issues in the course of a week. There is a knack to mastering the process, of course, but mostly the knack comes from making the awful acknowledgment that you really must spend all evening studying the handbook, every evening for the two weeks before each meeting. You don't have to do it, of course, and some members are obviously bluffing. But if you expect to be effective you must do it, and if you want to get effective you must do it, and if you want to get effective you must do it, and if you want to get promoted you have to be seen to be effective. Business starts at 7 AM sharp, often in a city where you must cope with three hours of jet lag, and it goes straight through to midnight. The fact that you are eating breakfast o at a reception does not change the business nature of the day. Only a profession of workaholics could produce three hundred delegates and three hundred alternates, the majority of whom will put up with this grind for ten or fifteen years. Some of our decisions may be wrong, but we sure try hard to make them right.

In closing, I think I should say something about the AMA lobbyists. The AMA is rightly known as having the most effective lobby in Washington, but you ought to know what that means. Since we are a national organization, and every congressman has a doctor, and every congressman lives where there is a county medical society, it is possible to create an organization which can influence the entire Congress, but only with a massive organizational effort. Congressmen too are overload with work and live in a constantly confusing environment. Just to be able to get them to listen to your story is an achievement, and it is necessary to work very hard at repairing this network of contracts. AMPAC raises campaign contributions, and this is one way of reaching some congressmen. Knowing who is on what committee, how he leans, who can influence him, and when the timing is right is an enormous organizational job. Sometimes extraordinary measures are needed, was true in April 1984 when mandatory assignment of Medicare benefits looked as though it might pass. The AMA flew in 125 state medical society presidents and other key contracts and led each one up to the appropriate doors at the critical moment. As you know, the effort was successful.

Most lobbying, however, is far less dramatic. The Federal Register is published weekly and averages seventy thousand pages a year. Perhaps a twentieth of that fine print pertains to medicine in some way, and it must be culled out, studied, decided about, and lobbied with the staff assistants and bureaucrats who are producing it. here are no major victories in this sort of work and you lose a lot of arguments. But there is little doubt that the steady pressure, the constant alertness, and the presentation of superior information have the effect of pushing this avalanche of legislation in directions which are much more favorable to medicine than if the effort were not undertaken.

And fellows, it all takes money. We can raise money by forming captive malpractice insurance companies, or getting advertising in our journals, or charging for computer networks, or speculating in real estate. But who pays the piper calls the tune. In the long run, the member will only control their society if the society remains heavily dependent on their dues. You really must choose between three alternatives. You can have no one represent the profession in an era when everyone else is represented. You can be represented by a bureaucracy which constantly reflects your wishes because it constantly hungers for your dues. The decision is yours and you can expect, in the long run, to get what you pay for.

Originally published: Thursday, October 11, 2018; most-recently modified: Friday, June 07, 2019