Dr. Cedric Bright, MD, recently assumed the post of 112th President of the National Medical Association (NMA). Dr. Bright spoke with me about his group’s relevance in the Obama era and its fight to protect Medicaid and Medicare, which he describes as “products” of the NMA.

The NMA has just wrapped up its annual convention in Washington, which I found quite informative. From here, what are the top challenges facing the NMA?

I would rank our challenges as follows: (1) the possibility of cuts to Medicare and Medicaid funding, (2) opposition in Congress to fully funding the most important provisions of the Affordable Care Act; and (3) cardiovascular disparity.

What’s cardiovascular disparity?

In 1999, the Institutes of Medicine reported that African Americans with similar health insurance as those from other ethnic groups received unequal health treatment. One of the most egregious disparities identified was in the outcome of cardiovascular patients based solely upon their race. Our goal is to decrease and eventually eliminate the gap of health outcomes between whites and underrepresented people of color.

In this environment of budget-tightening and consolidation, has there been any thought for a merger of NMA with other African-American health professional organizations to expand your political and economic power?

We have explored such collaborations, but we’ve not yet been able to come to a mutually beneficial agreement. However, many of our NMA local societies are mixed societies.

In my hometown, I’m a member of the Durham Academy of Medicine, Dentistry, and Pharmacy. On the local level you see the value of combined economic and political power; it’s my hope to expand this collaboration on the national level.

For now, there’s nothing to stop us from collaborating with other African-American health professionals to construct a common health agenda for our community. That’s something that I would like to see during my presidency.

Some have asked whether African-American organizations remain relevant in this era of the Nation’s first African-American president. Why should a young physician out of medical school join the NMA and is your organization still relevant?

Relevance is demonstrated in that we still have health disparity, which doesn’t dissipate based upon income. You can have the same health insurance but different outcomes from your colleague who does not look like you.

In addition, the medial profession is still fraught with institutional barriers that impact the development of African-American physicians. Evidence of this is found in the number of professors in academic medicine, compared to the junior faculty (assistant professors and clinical assistants) who are unlikely to be promoted. Let’s also look at health care professionals in administrative positions in hospitals, the number continues to hold stagnant and has not grown.

It’s a fact that 70 percent of successful Black physicians face a challenge in their careers that jeopardize their ability to practice their profession, from frivolous law suits to sham peer reviews.

Third, look at our economic condition, which is connected to our health condition. A recent PEW Study showed that in 2004, net worth at of White families stood at $134,000, compared to $12,000 for African Americans. By 2009, the average net worth of the White family dropped to $113,000 and the Black family dropped to $5,600, Latinos fared a bit better at $6,300. For every one dollar in net worth Black households had $.05.

Even with a Black president we still are economically disadvantaged and your wealth is determinative of your health. Your zip code can tell more about your life expectancy than your genes.

The NMA was founded in 1895, what accomplishments stand out most over its history?

By far, it’s our role in establishing Medicaid and Medicare 46 years ago. The NMA lobbied LBJ for these initiatives when other professional organizations lobbied vehemently against them. We understood the value in taking care of our seniors and other vulnerable populations understanding the strength of a nation is only as strong as its weakest links.

What legacy do you intend to leave from your term as president?

I hope to leave a legacy of expanded collaborations between the NMA and other African-American health organizations and to bridge gaps between the generations. I gave a lecture to the Student National Medical Association. I asked the students how many had to drink from a White-only water fountain. My generation’s realization that we were different from our White colleagues served as the tie that bound us. That’s not the tie that binds this new generation of physicians.

We have to build relationships with younger professionals so when they start to be affected by professional barriers they will view NMA as a source of advocates and champions.

 

Talib I. Karim

Special to the AFRO