Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld, President-elect of the AMA, Shares his Association Journey

Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld, president-elect of the AMA, speaks with Artesha Moore about how associations have played a role in his career.

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Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld is a busy man. He’s a tenured professor of anesthesiology and director of the “Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Endowment” at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He’s a husband, a father, and an officer in the Naval Reserve. Recently, he became president-elect of the American Medical Association (AMA). 

Association Forum is excited to hear Dr. Ehrenfeld’s thoughts on healthcare as the keynote speaker of Healthcare Collaborative next week. (There are still spots available! Register here.) He took a few minutes to chat with Artesha Moore, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of Association Forum, about his career and how associations have played a role in his life. He also speaks to the AMA’s work on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, and what’s to come for the organization.

Watch the video or read the full transcript below.

Read the transcript:

Artesha Moore: Hello, I am Artesha Moore, President and CEO of Association Forum, and today I have Dr. Ehrenfeld here with us. And I’m going to ask Dr. Ehrenfeld to introduce himself.

Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld: Sure. My name’s Jesse Ehrenfeld. I’m an anesthesiologist and also board certified in Clinical Informatics, and I’m the current President Elect of the American Medical Association.

Artesha Moore: I’m really excited for you to be here today. I have just a few questions so that our members and audience can get to know you. And as a association of associations, I’m always interested in hearing the leadership journey so tell me a little bit about your journey to be the President Elect of AMA.

Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld: Well, 21 years ago, as a first year medical student, I ventured just a few minutes north of where I was in school in Chicago to attend the annual policy making session of the AMA. I remember walking into this ballroom in downtown Chicago, seeing the leaders of medicine, every state, every specialty, more than 190 individual organization societies representing all that represent American medicine and debating critical issues around regulatory frameworks, drug pricing, access to care, and I was instantly hooked. So I was able to work my way in as a voting delegate and to participate in lots of different ways on committees and ultimately was elected into leadership and have the truly humbling privilege of serving now as President Elect of the Association.

Artesha Moore: Yeah, that’s very interesting, your story. I think for me it’s always about the business of heart, as the membership and the organizations. And being a professional society person for 25 years, I’m always interested, again, not just how you got involved, but the impacts. So how have associations and professional societies played a role in your career and in your life?

Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld: Well, I wouldn’t be in my day job if it weren’t for my work at the AMA. I currently live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I’m a Senior Associate Dean and run the largest health philanthropy in the state. I was hired into that role and I still see patients every week because of a lot of the policy work and work trying to improve health outcomes for the nation, that the leadership at my medical school said, “Geez, we can put this guy to work and give him a portfolio,” where I can have impact. So the mentorship I’ve received, the leadership development opportunities, being able to get up in front of an audience and speak, those are things that you don’t necessarily learn in medical school, but the association side of the house has been critically important in my leadership journey.

Artesha Moore: That’s really interesting. I think one of the questions that it made me think of is, you’re very busy and you’re still seeing patients and you’re doing those things, how do you balance that volunteerism part with your professional and family life? I mean, that’s a lot and you’re still giving back.

Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld: And I’ve also got a three-and-a-half-year-old that my husband and I have at home, two crazy rescue dogs, and for 10 years I was serving in the Navy while I was on the board of the AMA. But I will tell you, one of my mentors told me this, and it took me a long time to really understand it and incorporate it into my life and professional portfolio, is that you could have everything you want in life, just not all at the same time. So it’s hard to say no, it’s hard to give things up. I loved serving in combat. I loved serving the Navy, I loved deploying to Afghanistan, bringing my skills to military medicine. There are at least three guys that are home today that wouldn’t have survived if I hadn’t been there to provide them anesthesia care on the battlefield. But I made a decision, we made decision as a family for me to step away from that because they needed to make space for me to do other things, including obviously take on more leadership roles within the AMA.

Artesha Moore: As a Army brat, I grew up in the military, my dad is a military nurse, it is so much for me that resonates in giving back in that way. But then also being able to understand your calling and your family and those needs, so I can understand that and appreciate that.

As we look at healthcare, and right now we all know that the global pandemic has really changed and created some unprecedented disruptions, as you take on the helm of the largest medical association in the U.S., what can you tell us about the future of healthcare and what groups like the AMA and others are doing to pave the way for that future?

Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld: Well, it’s been a long two years and physicians have given everything to get our nation through the pandemic. With the worst of it behind us, the AMA is now pivoting to think about how can we try to help create a recovery plan for America’s physicians? And that means trying to understand, how do we support wellbeing for physicians and physician practices? How do we make sure that we remove regulatory burdens, expand telehealth access, ensure that we continue to have a focus on improving health equity around the nation? Those are critical issues that as we evolve into the next phase of what healthcare delivery in America is going to look like, that we’ll be squarely focused on on for the next time period, and I’m optimistic. We have huge challenges ahead of us. You look around, you read the news and you know that this is a challenging time in America, it’s a challenging time globally, but I believe that our organizations, the AMA and the component societies have never been stronger.

Artesha Moore: I’m glad to hear another optimist. I too am optimistic. A lot of the challenges and the unprecedented pieces and things that you talked about, opportunities in the future, health equity and access and information, to be able to really empower, resonated deeply with me. And I think as we look at the Association Forum, one of the things that is on the forefront for us is diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s in everything that we do, creating the sense of belonging and really empowerment. So as I think about the diversity, equity, inclusion justice, as we look at that in belonging, I’d like to invite you to speak a little bit about how DEIA plays a role in your career, but then also advocacy for the LGBTQ plus community. How do we look at empowerment and how does that affect the AMA network?

Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld: Well, it’s a critical issue and it’s obviously deeply personal for me as a gay physician. When I came out in college, I was 19, it was the year that Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered and left out in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming to die, and I remember thinking to myself, what does this mean to enter a profession and a society where we tolerate that kind of hate? And as I went into medical school and training and entered into the profession, there has been a lack of visible leaders, a lack of visible leaders that can carry the torch for health equity. That has started to change. I’m the first gay person to be elected to the AMA Board of Trustees to serve as an officer and in June, I’ll be the first gay president of the AMA in its 176 year history.

Part of what we have done through our Center for Health Equity is we released a strategic plan in 2021 that figures out how do we embed equity in everything we do. And if folks are interested, it’s a download on our website. It’s a long document. There’s executive summaries so you can get the gist of where we’re driving towards pretty quickly. But importantly in that document is an accounting of our missteps. There is a detailed accounting of all of the times when the AMA stood by and either actively or passively allowed discrimination to happen against black physicians, against gay Americans, against minoritized populations. We can’t empower our members, we can’t move forward as association until we reconcile that history, until we understand where we’ve come from, acknowledge it, speak truth, and move forward. And I’m so excited that we’ve been in a place as an organization where we’re ready to do that and I actually think that hopefully it will be a model for other associations.

Artesha Moore: Wow. Well, I’m looking forward to hearing more about that next week when we meet at the healthcare collaborative. But I will say for this video, as we in our community and other associations are looking at our charges, looking at taking our efforts to the next step, I really appreciate what you said about really accounting of the missteps. That’s something that is so helpful when people acknowledge that we didn’t get it right the first time because we usually are so braggadocious like, “Look at what we did.” So thank you for saying that. I’m going to be downloading it, I look forward to digging in, not just the executive summary, all of it, because I want to learn and be able to help our organizations empower in the way that you all are doing.

Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld: Absolutely. And I will tell you, approaching these issues as I do my clinical care with humility is so critical because we all suffer from the human condition and make mistakes as individuals and as organizations.

Artesha Moore: Yes. Thank you for that and thank you for this time with us. I look forward to seeing you in person next week.

Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld: Thanks for having the chat today and can’t wait to get together.

Artesha Moore: Thank you.

About the Author

The mission of Association Forum is to advance the professional practice of association management. Founded in 1916, Association Forum serves 3,000 association professionals whose efforts serve more than 27 million members and generate $10 billion in global annual expenditures. Visit www.associationforum.org for more information.

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