Medical Device Daily

SAN DIEGO In a profession that routinely consists of phone calls signaling that a person's life is on the line, beepers going off at 3 a.m. and emergency surgeries that are more the norm than any exception to the rule, making time to lobby for healthcare reforms or traveling abroad for medical missionary work could seem a bit daunting.

But those are exactly the kinds of things former U.S. Senate majority leader and cardiothoracic surgeon Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) urged members of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS; Chicago) to do Monday during the organization's 43rd annual meeting and exhibition here.

"There's something in all of us that wants to give just a little bit more than we give today . . . it's probably why many of you went into thoracic surgery," Frist said.

Frist, who has the honor of being the first speaker to give the Thomas B. Ferguson lecture six years ago, approached the podium to deliver the lecture again this year. His speech, titled "An Oath to Heal and an Oath to Govern: A Biased View of the Paradox No One is Addressing," compared his 20 years in medicine with his 12 years in Congress.

The Thomas B. Ferguson lecture was established in 2000 to honor and recognize Dr. Ferguson's contributions to thoracic surgery and it is the society's most esteemed lecture, Fredrick Grover, MD, PhD, president of STS, told attendees Monday as he introduced Frist.

Frist, who voluntarily said his good-byes to Washington four weeks ago, told the STS attendees that he ran for Senate in 1994 because he saw the country moving in the wrong direction and believed that he could make a difference.

"Not unlike many of you in the room, I woke up one day and was struck by the fact that I was a part of the problem," Frist said. "But I also believed that I could be part of the solution."

Frist also told his audience that the reason he committed in advance to limiting his term is because he believes in the citizen legislator someone who goes to Washington for a period of time with a mission to accomplish, rather than a career to protect, and then goes back home to live under the laws that he helped pass.

"Yes, my approach took Washington by surprise," Frist said.

He likened his approach in politics to the trust between surgeon's and patients, and told attendees, "we need more citizen legislators in the U.S. Senate and, I would say, in government," because during his tenure in Washington he learned that it is a "two-year town and not a 20-year town."

"Too many politicians are focused on that next election rather than on the next generation," Frist said.

Frist said when he decided to run for office 12 years ago, most of his friends and family thought he was crazy because he had no political experience and so the odds were much against him. But he said the characteristics he developed as a thoracic surgeon a focused work ethic, a commitment to innovation, being accountable were the same essentials for success in Washington.

Speaking to an audience of mostly doctors, Frist pushed his colleagues to put more effort into advocating for healthcare reforms in areas such as liability insurance, Medicare reimbursement, and electronic health records.

"STS does better than most specialty organizations, but your voice is not loud enough," Frist said. "Doctors are not at the table in sufficient numbers yet. Advocacy requires visibility and visibility requires money."

Frist who has in each of the past 12 years participated in overseas medical missions through World Medical Mission (Boone, North Carolina) besides urging time and money given to legislative advocacy also encouraged his colleagues to follow suit and "use medicine as the currency for peace."

To get his message across, Frist showed a video, "A Heart for Africa," of himself on a mission trip in Africa where he and other volunteer surgeons operated a hospital out of an abandoned school house in Sudan and on their first night there had to operate by flashlight.

First's experiences in Africa changed his life, he told the audience, and he urged each of them to find a way to volunteer their skills either locally or overseas.

"It expands you, you grow, it affects you as a person, you appreciate the blessing of being a surgeon . . . you feel a sense of patriotism," Frist said.

And Frist said he would be headed back to Africa shortly after the STS annual meeting for a month-long medical mission.

Attendees gave Frist a standing ovation, and Grover called his speech inspiring. Yet one surgeon in the audience was overheard afterwards telling a colleague that he missed two patient-related phone calls during Frist's lecture. Still, he couldn't help thinking about Frist's message and that the job of balancing the roles of doctor, and doctor as volunteer, adds up to "a tough business."