Private physicians and public health experts will gather in Washington this week for the First National Congress on Public Health Readiness, marking the beginning of a new partnership between the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Top officials with the Chicago-based AMA called the collaboration a landmark effort to effectively integrate public and private medicine, linking America's nearly 840,000 physicians to national disaster preparedness programs.
It signals the first time the AMA, whose membership includes about 250,000 physicians, has worked closely with the CDC to strengthen these links and to share plans to deal with terrorist attacks and emergency responses to naturally occurring health threats.
"This is absolutely momentous," said James James, a physician who is the director of the AMA's Center for Disaster Medicine and Emergency Response. "To me, this is a dream that is in the back of your head that's come to fruition. At least it has the potential to portend some really accelerated actions and development in getting public health and clinical medicine together on the same platform."
The two-day public health congress, which features an opening "call to action" from CDC Director Julie Gerberding and AMA President John Nelson, will attempt to underscore the importance of enlisting the private healthcare sector in facing future challenges and threats to public health and the nation's security. About 1,000 public health officials and private doctors, including representatives of other medical associations, are expected to attend the invitation-only conference, which begins July 20 at the Grand Hyatt Washington.
"I think this is the first time we've worked with the AMA to really talk about the preparedness issue; obviously, we need to convene both clinical medicine and public health," said Lynn Steele, senior adviser for education and training at the CDC's Office of Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response. "In that way, it is very unique."
The conference includes 16 sessions, with programs that highlight successful commu-nity efforts in preparedness, the economic costs of readiness and methods of measuring whether communities are prepared to launch coordinated efforts. Other sessions will focus on scientific advances in detection and response to these threats, Steele said. James will help direct a session titled "Training the Workforce-Responding to New Expectations of Performance."
James, who joined the AMA about 18 months ago after serving as director of the Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Health Department during the anthrax crisis, said the doctors' group hopes to concentrate on efforts to help train the healthcare workforce to prepare and respond to these threats. He said he could not estimate the costs of such a national training program or precisely what it will involve, but pointed out that this kind of collaboration has been under way to some degree since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"With Sept. 11," he said, "there was a public (health) and professional awareness that if we were going to be prepared for health emergencies, these two communities of clinical medicine and public health had to come together. In some individual communities, like New York City, it's being done to a large extent. In other communities, there's a long way to go. It certainly can be done an awful lot better in a lot of places. We have to integrate these two systems (in every community) so that if something happens, you've got a unified response."
In June 2003, the AMA established a series of voluntary training courses as part of continuing medical education for healthcare professionals. The first efforts, aimed at helping to develop standardized emergency responses nationwide, were coordinated at four universities involved in the National Disaster Life Support Education Consortium, which was created through a grant managed by the CDC. That educational program is still in the pilot stage, Steele said.
Though the AMA has worked with the CDC on a number of initiatives over the years, James pointed out, the organization has never forged a true partnership with the federal agency on such an ambitious project. The first step, he said, is the jointly sponsored national congress on public health, which he said would serve as a catalyst for action across the nation's private healthcare sector.