Dr. Steven Stack is well adjusted to the darkness. The Lexington-based emergency physician and president of the American Medical Association frequently rises before the light of dawn to catch flights to AMA conferences and meetings, or work back-to-back 12 hour shifts in the emergency department at St. Joseph East hospital. In a different city or country nearly three weeks out of every month, Stack often kisses his family goodbye not knowing exactly when he’ll see them next.
Sometimes it’s hours, sometimes days, and sometimes weeks. But they know he’ll always return, and luckily they understand of the value of his work. For this reason, Stack continues on, always striving toward creating a healthier, happier world.
“My family pays a price for my absence. But I couldn’t be more blessed to have them; they’re my strongest supporters,” said Stack of his wife, Tracie, a pediatric allergist physician, and 10-year-old daughter, Audrey. “We feel we have an obligation and opportunity to make the world a better place. Sometimes it comes at a cost, but it’s worth doing, and worth doing well.”
Stack, 43, was elected president of the AMA, the nation’s largest and most influential physician organization, in June 2015 and is the first emergency physician and youngest to serve in that role in over a century.
He is the second AMA president from Lexington, Ky., in three years. Ardis Hoven, a University of Kentucky infectious disease specialist, headed the organization in 2013-14. In June, Hoven was chosen chair of the World Medical Association, an international organization representing physicians from 111 national medical associations.
Stack, born and raised in Cleveland, has dedicated much of his life to being a leader in various areas of medicine and working tirelessly to improve healthcare across the nation.
“My interaction with patients is undeniably the most memorable part of my career,” said Stack, who in the last 15 years has served as medical director of the emergency departments at St. Joseph East, St. Joseph Mt. Sterling in rural Eastern Kentucky, and Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. “Over the years, I’ve had the joy of saving lives, bringing new lives into the world, and assuring people they will recover from injuries and illnesses. There’s a special bond between doctor and patient, and those bonds are priceless. That joy is what motivates and inspires me. It helps me to get up in the morning and do the work I do.”
Stack graduated magna cum laude from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He returned to Ohio and completed his medical school education and emergency medicine training at the Ohio State University before moving to Memphis to begin his clinical practice. In 2006, he and his family relocated to Lexington.
“My wife is a University of Kentucky graduate, and she and my daughter ride horses every week,” Stack said. “Between the rolling hills, horses and bourbon, it’s a beautiful place to live; I’m glad this is our home.”
Stack is nationally recognized for his special expertise in health information technology and served as chair of the AMA’s Health Information Technology Advisory Group from 2007 to 2013. He has also served on multiple federal advisory groups for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), including the Information Exchange, PCAST Report, and Strategic Plan workgroups.
With additional contributions to the areas of physician licensure, regulation and assessment as a chair and member of other boards and committees, Stack’s plate is incredibly full. But that hasn’t distracted his focus from the vital role he plays in the emergency department. The passionate nature with which he speaks about his profession makes it clear he’s found his calling.
“The emergency department is the great equalizer in the healthcare system – a place where rich and poor, insured and uninsured, those at death’s door, and those with minor aches and pains, lay side by side,” Stack said during his June 9 AMA inaugural address in Chicago. “You quickly realize illness does not discriminate – that the C-suite executive is no more immune to accidents or emergencies than the homeless man living under a bridge.
“These lessons have furnished me with a sense of perspective regarding the challenges we face in organized medicine. If one lesson stands above the rest, however, it’s how tenuous and precious life is – and what a gift it is to be a physician.”
Stack is undoubtedly grateful for the many blessings his vocation has provided, but he admits there have also been some major frustrations. In spite of the numerous groundbreaking medical advancements over the years, the nation’s healthcare system has a long way to go, Stack said.
“The bureaucratic intrusions and interferences of government in healthcare are the singularly most frustrating parts of the practice,” he explained. “There are so many different government programs we have to comply with, and when they’re implemented, they cause a regulatory tsunami. People often take a good thing and turn it into a compliance nightmare.
“I’m going to work 46 hours over the next three days, and half of that time will be spent typing into a machine so someone can analyze what I’m doing and whether or not they should pay for the service,” Stack said. “It prevents me from spending more time at people’s bedsides, answering questions and spending extra care and attention like I want to.”
Kentucky in particular needs to improve its Medicaid program, which Stack believes suffers from some government-sanctioned fraudulent activity.
“Now that Kentucky has expanded its Medicaid program, we must make sure those programs are acting in good faith and funding the clinical services being provided,” he said.
“When I reflect on being a physician today, I see many challenges,” he added. “But for each story of frustration, there is a story of vision, perseverance and success. There is a story of hope.”
As an elected leader within numerous specialty and geographic medical associations at both the national and state levels in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee over the last 18 years, and now as president of the AMA, Stack has enjoyed many accomplishments. While he’s proud of the improvements that have occurred under his guidance, Stack knows there is always more to be done.
Stack’s ambitious goals for the future of the AMA include the following:
• To profoundly improve health outcomes for the 86 million people in the United States with pre-diabetes and the 70 million with hypertension.
• To forge a generation of physicians prepared to meet the needs of the 21st-century healthcare system.
• To restore the joy in medicine and enable physicians to spend their time where it matters most – helping patients.
Stack admits they are ambitious goals, and accomplishing them won’t be easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is. In the midst of many dark mornings and some pain along the way, Stack has also experienced immense joy, and a desire to continue his quest to overcome adversity and improve the face of healthcare – one patient, family and community at a time.
“The physician’s life is defined not by one but by hundreds of moments,” Stack said. “Our profession is literally built around them. And to play a part in these moments is a priceless gift. These are the moments we went to medical school for. These are the moments for which we forego nights with our families. These are the moments that sustain us.”