Anesthesiologist Jesse Ehrenfeld, MPH ’09, is ready to lead renovations to the “House of Medicine” as the American Medical Association’s new president.
May 26, 2023—Every time Jesse Ehrenfeld walked through the doors at Milwaukee’s Froedtert Hospital to start work as an anesthesiologist during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he felt fear. He was afraid he might not be doing the right things to keep his patients healthy, and he feared he was jeopardizing his own health and that of his husband and young son. But outweighing his fear was the feeling of satisfaction that he and his colleagues were making a difference.
These emotions will fuel Ehrenfeld as he takes on the challenge of leading the “House of Medicine”—the American Medical Association—as its new president in June. “Physicians have put everything into our response to COVID, and now it’s time the nation renews its commitment to them and to shoring up our health system,” says Ehrenfeld, senior associate dean and professor of anesthesiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, with which Froedtert Hospital is affiliated.
The AMA Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians will top his agenda. The multipronged plan proposes reforming Medicare payments to physicians, improving telehealth, and reducing stigma around mental health care and burnout. Ehrenfeld sees addressing physician burnout as a key challenge for the AMA, one that will require systemic change around how care is delivered. “It’s going to be hard, but we have to do this work,” he says.
Ehrenfeld is perhaps uniquely positioned to take on this leadership role in a politically fractured moment. He is the first openly gay person to head the AMA, and he’s also a father, a combat veteran, and a fiscally conservative Republican. “A variety of experiences have shaped me professionally,” he says. “I’m someone who can listen and engage with folks who come at issues from different perspectives.”
From Delaware to Kandahar
You could say that medicine is in Ehrenfeld’s blood. He grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, as the son of a psychologist mother and a dentist father. From an early age, he knew he wanted to become a doctor. He says, “I wanted to put my capabilities to work for the greater good.”
After earning a BS at Haverford College in Pennsylvania—where he received a national undergraduate research award in chemistry—Ehrenfeld went on to the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. During his third year, he did a two-week rotation in anesthesiology and knew that it would become his specialty. He told Medpage Today last year that working as an anesthesiologist has honed his people skills; he’s had to learn to use his brief presurgery time with patients to both ask them for critical information and put them at ease.
Early in his experience with clinical work, Ehrenfeld was already thinking about what would become his research focus—using information technology to improve health systems. As an anesthesiology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, Ehrenfeld took his first stab at writing a grant to develop systems to better monitor patients during surgery to launch his research. He did not get the funding.
Realizing that he needed more training to develop his research skills, Ehrenfeld enrolled in the Summer Program in Clinical Effectiveness at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, then went on to earn his MPH. The next time he applied for the grant, he was funded. “I went back and looked at the early versions of the application and was amazed at the difference,” he says, adding that what he learned that year helped him “transform my scientific writing and my approach to study design, application of biostatistics, and approach to community engagement work.”
His new skills served him in his next role, on the faculty of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. There, he led research centered around how information technology can improve patient safety, outcomes, and health equity. He also co-founded and led a new program in LGBTQ+ health.
Around this same time, Ehrenfeld took a step that would create “some of the proudest moments of my professional career”—he joined the U.S. Navy Medical Corps. Ehrenfeld, who says he felt called to use his medical training to help service members, spent 10 years as a reserve officer, deploying to Afghanistan from 2014 to 2015. While there, he worked with a multinational medical team treating coalition soldiers and enemy combatants in a state-of-the-art, rocket-resistant trauma hospital in Kandahar. It was high-impact work. “There are at least three service members who are home with their families today because I was there to keep them alive,” he says.
While he was deployed, Ehrenfeld also shone a light on the lives of LGBTQ+ service members—taking photos that earned him a White House News Photographers Association award. And he raised transgender service members’ visibility around the world in February 2015, when then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter held a town hall meeting with troops at Kandahar Airfield. Ehrenfeld stepped to the microphone and asked Carter, “What are your thoughts on transgender service members serving in an austere environment like this, here in Kandahar?”
At the time, the estimated 15,000 transgender people in the military were keeping their identities hidden, for fear of discharge.
In his first-ever statement on the topic, Carter responded that “suitability” was the only thing that should preclude someone from military service. The White House soon expressed support for lifting the ban on transgender service. When the ban was repealed in 2016, Ehrenfeld’s question was described by Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning as the spark that led to its end. (The ban was reinstated under the Trump administration and repealed again under President Biden.) Ehrenfeld has continued his advocacy for transgender service members, including speaking in front of Congress and contributing to the Emmy-nominated documentary Transgender, at War and in Love.
In addition to his advocacy around LGBTQ+ health, Ehrenfeld has spoken out about other issues that impact his patients’ lives, including abortion restrictions and racist practices in medicine. Last year, he testified before an FDA panel about the potential risks of pulse oximeters—devices widely used during the pandemic to measure oxygen levels in the blood—which have been found to be less accurate on people with darker skin.
At the Medical College of Wisconsin, Ehrenfeld’s role also includes overseeing the Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Endowment, a half-billion-dollar fund that devotes a third of its grantmaking directly to the community. Last year, it funded 14 initiatives serving vulnerable populations in areas including crisis care, health literacy, and alcohol-related violence prevention.
Ehrenfeld plans to continue pushing for changes that will improve the health of everyone in the U.S., particularly those who have been historically marginalized. He sees the AMA as a place to drive this work. “I remember walking into a ballroom at my first AMA policy meeting as a first-year medical student and seeing the ‘House of Medicine.’ There were people from every state, every specialty, from 190 or so organizations, debating how to move medicine forward and how to improve health care access and quality for underserved communities. I instantly recognized the power of this conversation, and I never left.”
At that meeting 22 years ago, he wouldn’t have thought it possible that an openly LGBTQ+ person could become president, he says. “I have seen the organization’s demographics change and become more diverse and more representative. I think that’s a very positive thing as we work to lift up the health of the nation.”
Photo: Kent Dayton