Dr. Steven Stack: Steering the American Medical Association
Pioneering president speaks out on doctor-patient communication.
This article is from the February 2016 edition of the Toastmaster magazine.
When Dr. Steven Stack was sworn in last year as the new president of the American Medical Association (AMA), he made history on a couple of fronts. At 43, he became the organization’s youngest president in 160 years. He also became the first emergency physician to serve in that role.
The former Toastmaster has been a longtime leader in the medical profession. Stack is an expert in the field of health information technology and has served as medical director for several emergency departments. In his line of work, he notes, “the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively is an incredible asset.”
The Lexington, Kentucky, physician was elected to the AMA’s Board of Trustees in 2006. Founded in the mid-1800s, the AMA is the largest physician organization in the U.S., with 230,000 members.
Whether on stage for thousands or in an exam room for a single patient, understanding one’s audience is essential to effective communication.
“My personal mission is to advance the work of the AMA in helping doctors help patients live healthier, happier lives,” says Stack. One of his key goals is to reform medical education to meet the needs of a 21st century health care system. For example, he supports AMA funding to help more than 30 medical schools develop innovative training—new curriculum models that will better prepare medical students for real-world patient care.
As the public face of the AMA, Stack gives a wide range of presentations, both in the U.S. and around the world. He speaks about health-policy topics to small and large audiences, and he regularly does print, radio and television interviews.
Stack credits his experience in Toastmasters for his confidence as a speaker. He was a member for about six years, and his initial connection to the organization stretches back to his early teens. In the eighth grade he participated in a community public speaking program led by two Toastmasters, Victoria and Nicolette Boros.
Stack was so enthusiastic about it that Victoria invited him to talk about his experience at the District 10 spring conference in 1986. There he met Helen Blanchard, Toastmasters International’s first female president. Visiting with her made a big impression on the young man.
“All these years, I have remembered her name and my meeting with her solely because of the profound impact that brief interaction has had on my life,” Stack says.
Why did you decide to become a physician?
As a student, I enjoyed both science and interacting with people. Becoming a physician was a good blend of my interests. My Toastmasters’ involvement represents the interpersonal engagement part of me, and medicine offers personal interactions and many ways of applying science to help patients. I consider being a physician one of the most special parts of my personal and professional identity.
How can physicians balance technology and the “personal touch” with patients?
This may be one of the most salient health care challenges of our times. We have more science and technology to help patients than ever before in human history. Previously incurable conditions are being transformed into chronic, manageable conditions. Health care is now a big business, and many entities have inserted themselves between doctors and patients, to the detriment of this relationship. Both patients and physicians must work to find ways to preserve this bond.
With the complexity in science and health delivery, patients need doctors as trusted advocates and partners to chart and navigate a path that leads to healthier, happier lives.
How do your communication skills help you as a doctor and as AMA president?
The ability to empathize with others and appreciate another person’s frame of reference is an invaluable asset. Whether on stage for thousands or in an exam room for a single patient, understanding one’s audience is essential to effective communication. This sensitivity, when coupled with the ability to distill complex issues into easily understood stories, enables one to connect with others and communicate effectively.
What are some challenging speaking situations you encounter?
I regularly speak to groups about topics on which there are strong differences of opinion. I strive to acknowledge the concerns of others, frame the issue in as balanced a manner as possible and be candid in my response. I find that this works on large stages as well as in one-on-one discussions with patients. Most people appreciate honesty and sincerity, even if they have a difference of opinion.
What is your usual approach to public speaking?
My usual (and most fun) approach is extemporaneous speaking, set around a theme and supported by solid content knowledge. My ideal set-up is a lavaliere microphone and a visible clock so I can stay within the allotted time. I owe this [comfort level] to Toastmasters, because this style of public presentation can be terrifying for many people.
I craft the content and style of my message to the real-time verbal and nonverbal feedback from the audience. The presentation becomes a dialogue rather than a monologue. The ability to tailor words, phrases, tone and pacing to a live audience is one of the most impactful communications I get to experience. It’s a genuine treat. I am inherently an introvert, so for me to say this is quite an evolution for me.
How did Toastmasters help you?
Nicolette Boros explained that it was normal to have butterflies in my stomach when speaking—but it was how I managed them that mattered. The butterflies don’t come as often now, but when they do, my training and experience help me communicate effectively and convey a polished presence to my audience.
Table Topics has been invaluable to me. The ability to hear and assimilate information quickly and communicate effectively on short notice has been of inestimable value.
I remember being the Ah-Counter and being subjected to others serving in that role. The ability to express myself in a smooth, fluid manner, free of distracting verbal utterances, has enhanced my effectiveness.What tips do you have for patients to help them communicate better with their doctors?
- Be honest with your physician—a) it’s the best way to get good advice, b) we’ve heard it all before, and c) we often learn the truth from secondary signs anyway.
- Write notes before you go to your appointment to keep yourself organized and make sure you don’t forget any important questions you have.
- Physicians are often as frustrated with the health system as our patients are—we really want to be your partner and supporter in addition to your advisor.
What are your keys to success in life?
Earlier this year I spoke with students and faculty at my alma mater, Holy Cross College [in Massachusetts]. My message was to be curious, passionate, persistent and humble. Being vibrantly engaged with people in the world around me and being careful to keep things in perspective has gifted me with a wonderful professional and personal life. I am one lucky fellow, to be sure.