As president-elect of the American Medical Association, Pawleys Island family physician Dr. Gerald Harmon brings a small-town perspective to the national health care stage
Sometimes, when Gerry Harmon leaves work at his family medicine practice, a patient has left a gift in the bed of his truck.
“When I leave the office, I’ll find a bushel of corn, or some watermelons, or a basket of sweet potatoes,” says Harmon. “It’s a small town—everyone knows my truck. They’ll leave notes on it: ‘Thanks, Dr. Harmon, for all your help. These are for you.’”
This idyllic anecdote seems incompatible with leadership of the American Medical Association (AMA), the largest professional group of physicians in the country. Certainly, residents of Pawleys Island are more familiar with the former scenario than the latter. However, Dr. Gerald Harmon has built his career with intention, focus, and support from his family and community, allowing him to embody both roles effectively. As he becomes the president of the AMA on June 1, 2021, he’ll bring the health care concerns of Georgetown and Horry counties to the front and center stage of a national conversation.
Even as he discusses global challenges of health care and how to implement widescale innovation in 21st century medicine, Harmon drops folksy phrases into the conversation, reflecting his rural roots and medical foundation within a small-town community. It’s not wisdom he’s gained over more than four decades of medical practice, he tells young doctors seeking advice, it’s experience that has helped him succeed.
“I say, ‘If you go down this route, this is what’s going to happen. If you don’t do this for the patient, this is what will happen.’ I have a pretty good memory, so I remember where each route will get me. I remember which dog will bite and which will let you go.”
Clearly, humility is also a key characteristic of this Newberry, S.C., native, who has led a highly decorated military career in the U.S. Air Force, an award-winning medical career in private practice, and a progressive series of professional positions that led to his current appointment. Along the way, he earned undergraduate and doctoral degrees from the University of South Carolina and the Medical University of South Carolina respectively, and served as flight surgeon for numerous U.S. Air Force tactical fighter squadrons; chief physician for the National Guard Bureau; assistant surgeon general for the U.S. Air Force; president and chair of the South Carolina Medical Association (SCMA) Board of Trustees; and chair of the AMA Board of Trustees. He’s seen Georgetown Hospital expand from a staff of 12 doctors to the current Tidelands Health Group, which encompasses four hospitals and more than 60 outpatient locations.
“I assume he just doesn’t sleep,” quips Dr. Robert Whitehead, medical director of radiology at Tidelands Health, who has worked with Harmon for more than 30 years.
In discussing how he approaches all facets of life, Harmon cites the central tenets of two institutions that have played a significant role in his experiences: the U.S. Air Force and the AMA. The U.S. Air Force holds core values of “Integrity, service over self, and excellence in all we do.” When asked about his driving ideals, Harmon is quick to explain how these concepts apply to not only national service but medicine, family, and any profession.
“Integrity first: always be reliable and dependable and tell the truth,” says Harmon. “Service before self: what’s going to help the patient? Not what I’m going to get paid for the most, not what’s going to be most convenient for me, not what I think the patient wants, but what’s going to help the patient? And excellence in all you do: Even the smallest task, I try to do it in an excellent manner. If you try to do everything, you can’t always be as excellent as you’d like to be, so you have to—not necessarily say ‘no,’ but you have to prioritize and compartmentalize your duties.”
Harmon has perfected these guiding maxims in collaboration with a supportive professional community. He discovered the benefit of the AMA early in his career, with its mission statement “to promote the art and science of medicine and the betterment of public health,” and discovered the authenticity of its benefits. He recalls his early impressions of national AMA conferences.
“I’d go up there and see a huge room of 500 delegates, and I would see the interactions, see different perspectives brought from different specialties,” says Harmon. “I’d see the different ages, geographical locations, and genders, and I thought, ‘This is a really big deal. This is an opportunity for me to become a better doctor to my patients in Georgetown and bring the perspective of the patients of Georgetown and Horry County to the AMA.’ And I could see the two-way street, with communication being so critical.”
As Harmon’s relationship with the AMA progressed, his horizons expanded further.
“What impressed me was that I could take issues to the AMA, as a young doctor practicing in rural South Carolina, and they would listen to me” he says. “I didn’t give them advice; I just gave them perspectives that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and that could then translate to legislative activities. It might help not only medications, but approval from insurance plans and insurance companies, changes in the way physicians can interact with their patients, and reduced barriers to health care.”
Whitehead also gives credit to the AMA for selecting a president from a rural area who is still practicing.
“A lot of times, professional organizations are made up of people from Boston, Washington, D.C., or Atlanta, who are at big academic medical centers and whose involvement in the AMA is just part of what they do as academics,” says Whitehead. “To have somebody who’s actually a hands-on, local physician touching patients and working in the community is a little bit different—I think it’s great.”
Harmon emphasizes the key role of supportive family members, colleagues, and patients in allowing him to take on such a significant national position. His wife, three adult children, and eight grandchildren all live in the area, and when Harmon’s not attending meetings across the country, he’s attending his grandchildren’s ball games at Waccamaw High School. Colleagues cover care for Harmon’s patients when he is away, but his occasional absence doesn’t reduce patients’ gratitude.
Harmon has cared for three generations of Hal Strange’s family, and the Pawleys Island resident says Harmon’s core value of integrity is always on full display.
“When you have a serious problem going on, or a family member has a serious problem, he’s always there for you,” says Strange. “The citizens of Georgetown County and the Grand Strand have been very fortunate to have had him to be such an active part of our medical community for so long.”