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First AMA president from NM addresses country’s health issues

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

In 2017, Dr. Barbara McAneny heard her name announced as the president-elect of the American Medical Association, making her the first New Mexican to be elected head of the largest association of doctors in the country.

Dr. Barbara McAneny, who has led New Mexico Oncology and Hematology Consultants Ltd. for 20 years, served for a year as president of the American Medical Association. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“Being elected … was probably one of the happiest moments of my life,” she said. “I was thrilled, and relieved and just ecstatic.”

In her year in charge of the association that ended in June, McAneny worked to combat physician burnout and the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs. In March, she led the medical association’s fight against the Trump Administration’s rule that prohibited family planning clinics funded by the federal Title X program from making abortion-related referrals.

For McAneny, who has led New Mexico Oncology and Hematology Consultants Ltd. for more than 20 years, the presidency was a learning experience. As president of the AMA, McAneny was in charge of speaking publicly on behalf of the organization about a wide variety of hot-button health topics, from insurance to opioid abuse.

“The AMA touches all facets of health care, and we touch every physician, and therefore every community,” she said.

Frustration, burn out

While traveling across the country speaking with groups of doctors, one issue that she said came up consistently was doctors getting frustrated and burned out by the profession. According to statistics from the AMA, 5% of doctors are looking to leave the profession, while about half have considered cutting hours.

McAneny said it comes down to a lack of control for unhappy doctors working in large hospitals, since many don’t feel like they have a say in the direction of the hospital or the number of patients they can work with. She added that physicians in smaller practices often feel squeezed by the rising cost of administering care.

“And this is happening during a time when we are facing a physician shortage,” she said.

The problem is particularly dire in New Mexico, which ranked 44th nationally in number of physicians per 100,000 residents, according to a study from The Senior List.

While McAneny noted that the AMA has worked to make it easier to process electronic medical records and added resources for physicians, she added that the underlying issues won’t change until the larger health care system becomes more friendly to both doctors and patients.

‘Band-aids’

“Those things are band-aids we’re putting on a frustrating system,” she said.

Similarly, McAneny pointed to the cost of health care as a looming problem. According to data from the medical association, Americans spent $3.5 trillion on health care in 2018, and that number may reach $5.5 trillion by 2026. Without a change, McAneny said health care may make discretionary spending impossible for many Americans.

“I don’t think there can be money for roads, or bridges, or fire departments or schools if we’re eating up all our discretionary money on health care,” she said.

She added that roughly 90% of the expenditures was aimed at addressing chronic illness, including diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Because of that, she stressed the need for more of that money to go toward small, local clinics that help with preventing illness, rather than large hospital expansions.

When asked about opioid abuse, McAneny acknowledged that doctors have over-prescribed the painkillers in the past, but are now streamlining access to treatment and working to remove the stigma associated with opioid abuse.

“We have to recognize that this is not a moral failing, but a chemical disease,” she said.

NM links

McAneny, who continued to see patients on a limited basis at New Mexico Cancer Center, which is owned by New Mexico Oncology and Hematology Consultants Ltd., during her tenure as president, said many of the national issues she worked on as AMA president have direct links to her work in New Mexico. She called the Land of Enchantment a “perfect laboratory” for potential changes.

“If we can take care of our population, with its diversity and its lack of resources…we can manage to be the model for how it could work elsewhere in the country,” she said.

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