An interview with Stephen L. Ferrara, MD, FSIR
Summer 2018 (preview)
SIR member Stephen L. Ferrara, MD, FSIR, was the society’s Health Policy and Economics Division councilor in 2016, having previously served on several committees focused on economics and quality improvement. He participated in the 2013 Leadership Development Academy (and again in 2015 as adviser) and frequently serves as Annual Scientific Meeting faculty. He served in the U.S. Navy for 25 years and was appointed to serve as the Navy’s Chief Medical Officer from 2013 to 2015. He retired in 2016 with the rank of Captain and is now seeking election to the U.S. House of Representatives to represent Arizona’s 9th Congressional District. We recently sat down with Dr. Ferrara to discuss his vision, interests and experiences on the campaign trail.
Congratulations on your transition from full-time clinical practice to politics. What first drew you to medicine—IR in particular?
As a molecular biology major at UCLA, I was quickly drawn to the problem-solving and scientific nature of medicine. In my second year, however, I experienced a life-changing event when I suddenly lost my mom to a fatal stroke at only 57 years old. Her premature death was the result of a lack of trust in doctors and the medical system in general. Losing my mom at such a young age steeled my efforts on becoming the kind of doctor who would connect with patients the way that no doctor had connected with my mom.
When the first Gulf War broke out in January of my senior year of college, I saw an opportunity to heed two callings—medicine and public service. I accepted a commission in the Navy and entered the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland (America’s military academy for medical school), with a plan to become a trauma surgeon. I figured surgery suited my desire to be a problem solver and I assumed it was also the most challenging discipline, which appealed to me. After completing my surgical internship, I went to the Fleet where the Navy sends all its future surgeons to be general medical officers between internship and residency. I went to the Marines, deployed to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, and learned to be a country doctor and jack of all trades.
That tour gave me the opportunity to step off the treadmill and ask myself what I really wanted to do now that I had a bit of experience. By then I’d been exposed to interventional radiology and knew IRs were where surgeons and internists alike turned when they had problems or complications that they couldn’t solve. The IRs were great to work with (and they worked with everyone in the hospital), and they were procedure-based specialists who craved solving the most complex problems. Not to mention, the IRs just seemed to love their work and were so much happier than everyone else! From an overseas port in the midst of deployment, I called an audible on my career plan and switched to interventional radiology. That was one of my best decisions ever.
Flash forward to today … How did you get interested in running for office?
I’m a lifelong Navy guy so being in public service is a natural. It’s in my DNA. I’ve always loved the mission—being part of something bigger than myself and serving the country. Over the years and through multiple deployments, I’ve been intimately exposed to foreign and diplomatic policy. In 2005, as part of the tsunami relief effort in Indonesia (the world’s most populous Muslim country), I participated in an experimental foreign policy strategy called medical diplomacy. Working with the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Defense Department, I grew to enjoy all the interdepartmental interaction and became very attracted to the idea of staying in federal service—although I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it in an elected capacity at that point.
When I came back home to the United States, I began seeking more roles in organized medicine, with associations like SIR, the American College of Radiology and the American Board of Radiology. Working with those organizations gave me tremendous exposure to health policy—I was hooked. Finally, I received a baptism by fire in terms of U.S. wartime strategy when I served in Afghanistan in 2009.
While I appreciated the opportunity to make a difference each day practicing IR and leading Sailors and Marines, I quickly realized that making a positive impact for millions of Americans across a broad policy spectrum required me to run for U.S. Congress.
Can you briefly describe your views on health care?
Like so many frustrated doctors today, one of my top priorities is re-establishing the patient–physician relationship. For the past decade or two, the gulf between patients and their doctors has vastly widened, in large part because of the bureaucratic and administrative hurdles introduced by the federal government. The practice of medicine is more challenging and onerous for physicians, because of the ever-growing burden of bureaucracy. This has taken much of the joy out of practicing medicine, which is derived from connecting with patients like my mom. It’s also caused legions of burned out physicians to retire prematurely, resulting in workforce shortages and access challenges for patients who are the greatest casualty of this phenomenon. I’m convinced that the north star for health care reform is restoring the emphasis on the patient–physician relationship.
We have a duty to create economic models that give all patients access to high-quality, affordable health care. Today, health care is entirely supply-side-driven: hospitals, insurers, pharmaceutical companies, etc. are dictating the models in which health care is delivered. Patients end up being marginalized from the health care system because even if they have health care insurance, they don’t often have healthcare access. For some, there are no timely appointments to be found and for others their high deductible makes it too cost-prohibitive. Meanwhile, insurers and health care systems play a shell game with in- and out-of-network contracts so patients can’t decipher who or where they’re supposed to be seen.
My big emphasis is making health care delivery a demand-side-driven model, which means the patients and physicians will determine how the suppliers (hospitals, insurers and others) adapt to their desires—not the other way around. This is how we engage with every sector of our economy that is remotely efficient and gratifying. Wherever demand factors are marginalized, service, quality and cost follow.
How would your election impact IR?
I’d say there are two main areas of impact.
First, having an IR in Congress would give our specialty much needed positive exposure. In the past year, some high-profile public figures have had positive experiences with IR, shining a spotlight on a couple of the many ways we help patients. But those quick, high-intensity media blasts can’t compare with the value of a consistent, day-in and day-out presence in Congress.
Second, there would be tremendous value in bringing the qualities we bring to the angio suite to the governance process, like being first-class problem-solvers, collaborators and conveners. We work with a host of diverse physicians doing team-based care while we work to solve our patients’ problems and overcome difficult challenges in innovative ways. That’s a powerful skill set to bring to Washington. When other members of Congress see it, I’m certain they’ll appreciate it and say, “He brings a great toolbox that will help us succeed in moving the ball down the field in innovative ways.”
What aspect of the campaign trail has surprised you the most?
I knew it would be an incredible amount of work, but I don’t think you can adequately anticipate or prepare for the type of work. It’s very different from what we’re used to—being a candidate offers vague measures of accomplishment. IRs focus on outcomes. We’re accustomed to making big differences in the lives of our patients daily, but the political process moves slowly and isn’t linear. It’s also harder to keep score during a campaign because there are only two metrics: fundraising and votes. And of those two, only the second one matters. So it’s a bit of an adjustment to go into the murky world of politics from the results-oriented world of IR and the military but I don’t mind because I’m patient, work hard, stick to the plan, and I’ve never stopped believing that this is a necessary and noble cause.
If you advance in the August primaries and do get elected to Congress, what would be your top priority?
I want to build a reputation for myself as the kind of a person who works hard to get to “yes”—after all, that’s who we are as interventionalists. We’re not the ones who invent reasons why we can’t do something. We’re the folks who say, “This is a really hard problem—let’s see how we can solve it.” I want to quickly establish myself as the hardest worker, a sharp policy expert and an honest broker.
Read more about Dr. Ferrara’s platforms at ferraraforcongress.com.
Read more about Dr. Ferrara’s experiences serving as a Navy-based interventional radiologist in his article “IR on the high seas” (IR News. Jan.-Feb. 2011:6–7).
In 2017, recognizing the positive impact Dr. Ferrara’s election would have on the specialty, the SIRPAC Board of Directors was proud to endorse him and voted to support his campaign.
Donations to SIRPAC by members like you help us support the campaigns of SIR members like Dr. Ferrara, Anne W. Giuliano, MD (who is running for Montana’s State House District 46), and Jeffrey A. Leef, MD (who ran for Illinois’ 7th Congressional District in March 2018), as well as other candidates whose platforms and views are favorable to IR.
To support SIRPAC or read more about the society’s latest efforts on your behalf, visit sirweb.org/sirpac.