Newly named American Medical Association chief executive E. Ratcliff "Andy" Anderson, M.D., pledged to reverse the organization's flagging membership last week.
"I'm going to go about this with the zeal of a missionary," Anderson said in an impassioned speech to his new constituents. "What's at stake is nothing less than the future of our AMA."
His upbeat and resolute message to the 475-member AMA House of Delegates, holding its annual meeting in Chicago, served as an antidote to the demoralizing Sunbeam Corp. endorsement scandal, which has dogged the organization since last August.
"When I was a young fighter pilot many years ago, I thought the stratosphere was about as high as I would ever go-until right now," said the 58-year-old former Air Force surgeon general, who took the helm June 8.
Anderson, the first AMA executive vice president named from outside the ranks of the AMA board of trustees, said he was excited to join a "new generation of AMA management" installed since Sunbeam.
Anderson replaces P. John Seward, M.D., who resigned in December. Five senior officials resigned or were fired last fall after the AMA agreed to accept royalties for lending its name and seal to Sunbeam products such as thermometers and heating pads.
Anderson evoked applause by dismissing calls for further investigation of the deal, declaring: "This case is closed."
Later at a news conference, Anderson said he doesn't want the staff "focusing unduly on Sunbeam. Let's look at the future, where we need to go. Sunbeam is in the past."
Anderson announced a personal campaign to get every AMA member to recruit one new member.
Anderson renewed his AMA membership in 1994 after a 21-year absence only because his appointment as Air Force surgeon general entailed becoming an AMA delegate.
Membership is widely viewed as the AMA's most critical issue, with the need to replace membership dues serving as a motivating factor in the Sunbeam deal.
AMA membership was 293,627 at year-end 1997, or 36.4% of licensed U.S. physicians. Five years ago, the AMA had 294,425 members, and its market share was 41.2%.
However, full dues-paying members represent only about 31% of U.S. doctors, as residents, students and military physicians receive dramatic dues discounts.
A new report by an AMA task force predicted membership will drop to zero by 2023 unless the organization takes steps to reverse course, including improving member services and retention.
Other recent reports show the growing number of minority and women physicians continue to be underrepresented at the AMA (See chart).
The AMA inaugurated its first woman president, Nancy Dickey, M.D., last week. However, turnover resulted in the loss of one woman from the 20-member board of trustees, dropping the number of women on the board to three, and the loss of the board's only minority member, Regina Benjamin, M.D.
Anderson said he would consider any legal and ethical means of boosting the AMA's ranks, including a dramatic dues cut.
"I know we can fix the membership issue, and I am dead set committed to doing that," he said, quipping that he would buy one doubting reporter a steak dinner to convince him.
Delegates gave Anderson two standing ovations. But his honeymoon period might be brief if he tries to implement policies and reforms that aren't universally popular.
For example, the AMA has been stymied in its efforts to recruit group practices because of a house policy that prohibits the AMA from negotiating special rates for medical groups without the consent and participation of state and county medical societies.
The policy was mollified somewhat at last week's meeting.
Anderson said it's his job "to worry less about the political realities. . . .We need to take some fairly fresh looks at what we do."