Milwaukee-based anesthesiologist Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD, this past June became the first openly gay individual to take on the role of president of the American Medical Association (AMA).
"While I didn't run as an LGBTQ candidate, I know that my visibility and representation matters," Ehrenfeld said, adding that his candidacy was significant "not just to LGBTQ people, but for all physicians who are facing challenges."
Ehrenfeld, who is a professor of anesthesiology at Medical College of Wisconsin, steps into the role at a tumultuous time for LGBTQ+ Americans, as politicians across the country have taken aim at the health needs of the LGBTQ+, especially as they pertain to trans individuals.
Ehrenfeld added, "The AMA is doing so much to support LGBTQ patients and [others]. We have legislative advocacy. We have a litigation center that's standing up for transgender patients through our amicus briefs supporting legal challenges to restrictive laws."
Reducing stigma against patients with unique needs because of their sexual orientation or gender identity was another priority, he added.
"We are facing government intrusion into how we practice medicine," Ehrenfeld said. "…We have a lot of challenges ahead of us."
A Delaware native, Ehrenfeld is also a reserve medical commander in the U.S. Navy, as well as a leading researcher in the field of biomedical informatics (sciences and technologies behind collecting and utilizing patient data). He has also been a high profile advocate for the rights of transgender Americans wanting to serve in the U.S. military.
Ehrehfeld likewise has been a part of the AMA's efforts in speaking out on behalf of the healthcare-related rights of transgender Americans.
"In 2021, we sent a letter to the National Governors Association calling for an end to legislative interference in healthcare for transgender patients," he offered for example. "We continue to refer to it as a dangerous intrusion into the practice of medicine. … Doing all those things as an LGBTQ person is pretty excitingthere's such great alignment with what I know we need to do to support the needs of the community."
Ehrenfeld noted that the Chicago-based AMA has had membership growth for 11 out of the past 12 years, which he attributed to physicians "understanding the value" that the organization brought to the practice of medicine in the country.
"I was chair of the board when COVID arrived," he recalled. "So much of that time is now fuzzy, because there was so much we had to do to support physicians and patients."
The stress of the pandemic contributed to physician burnoutand that burnout is "a real threat" to healthcare in America, Ehrenfeld added. He noted that, "Nearly two-thirds of physicians experienced burnout symptoms in 2021. Think about that. One in five physicians said they're going to stop practicing in two years."
As such, the AMA has prioritized what it calls a "Recovery Plan for America's Physicians," composed of five facets: reforming Medicare; supporting telehealth; fixing prior authorizations; fighting "scope creep" (political interference determining patient care); and reducing burnout.
"That's really the focus of a lot of our activity across the organization, in [terms of] trying to support physicians today," Ehrenfeld added.
He has been active in the AMA's organizational levels for several years, and said that his colleagues have always been accepting of identity. He jokingly encapsulated his time there in one word: "Fabulous!"
But Ehrenfeld switched gears to describe the thoughts running through his head as he received the AMA's presidential medallion earlier in the summer of 2023. He wondered that evening, was the event inspiring some younger physician who had not yet come out of the closet?
"Somebody watching in the audience was struggling, because they are gay, or identify as LGBTQ," he said. "I only hope that the visibility I bring through my leadership of the AMAthe largest, most influential physician groupcan give that person some hope and some sense of possibility."