I am in the unique position to interview my former partner and practice copresident, Georgia state Senator D. Kay Kirkpatrick, MD. She provides insights on how and why a successful orthopaedic surgeon would leave the familiarity of orthopaedic surgery and enter the world of public service and politics.
When I joined Resurgens Orthopaedics in 2006, Dr. Kirkpatrick and Steve B. Wertheim, MD, served as the practice’s copresidents. In 2014, Dr. Kirkpatrick stepped down from the role but continued to serve the profession as president of the Georgia Orthopaedic Society and a member-at-large on the Board of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Afterward, she gracefully retired from the active practice of orthopaedic hand surgery.
Her plans for retirement were quickly disrupted when then-Congressman Tom Price, MD, was confirmed as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, subsequently vacating Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. This set off a flurry of activity, with several Georgia politicians deciding to campaign for Dr. Price’s former office. After consulting with her friends and confidants, Dr. Kirkpatrick decided to run for the Georgia State Senate 32nd District, and after a competitive race, she was elected as a state senator. She was successfully reelected in 2018 and now serves as chair of the Senate Ethics Committee.
Dr. Kirkpatrick and I have participated side-by-side in political advocacy at the state and federal levels for many years and even more so in recent years during my term as treasurer on the Orthopaedic Political Action Committee Executive Board. I wanted to see whether her perspective has changed since experiencing life on the other side of the chamber doors.
Dr. Lundy: What in the world were you thinking? Why did you decide to run for this public office?
Dr. Kirkpatrick: I ran for state Senate at the request of my colleagues in the medical community who felt more representation was needed on the major healthcare issues facing our state. Although I had advocacy experience as a leader in my group practice, I didn’t fully understand the reality of being in the trenches.
Dr. Lundy: You and I have been to the state and national capitols many times, advocating for the needs of our patients. Together, we often wondered why our elected officials make the decisions they do. Now that you are a state Senator, can you give some insight on the decision-making process in the Senate chamber?
Dr. Kirkpatrick: As a hand surgeon for more than 30 years and a business leader, I was accustomed to handling issues with patients, partners, and others in a logical way—asking the right questions, getting the right people in the room, determining the options, making a decision, and moving forward. That approach does not work well in politics, where it is more about relationships, debts, favors owed, and behind-the-scenes maneuvering that is often not obvious. We are dealing with big policy issues, but it is very difficult to think big. More often, we are taking “bites of the apple” over a long period of time.
Dr. Lundy: You served the public as an orthopaedic surgeon for many years. How does your constituency respond to your new role?
Dr. Kirkpatrick: The most challenging part in a swing district like mine is that I am making half the people mad whether I vote red or green. Most people like their surgeons, so being chastised by people I don’t know is something new. The other challenge is that although my expertise is in health care, I am voting on farming, banking, social issues, and many other things. Many decisions are made at higher levels that are unrelated to the benefits of proposed legislation.
Dr. Lundy: What do you like best about being a senator?
Dr. Kirkpatrick: The most rewarding part of my new job is moving policy issues forward and the ability to honor exemplary folks in my district. I also enjoy meeting a lot of people with all perspectives who I probably would not have met in my “retirement.”
Dr. Lundy: I can easily see how that is professionally fulfilling. What about your job is most challenging?
Dr. Kirkpatrick: Campaigning is exhausting and expensive. I had great financial support from my fellow physicians and broad community support due to my large network of patients and community involvement for many years. My work ethic as a surgeon helped me during the campaign and helps under the gold dome, too.
Dr. Lundy: How is life as a senator different than you thought it would be?
Dr. Kirkpatrick: Being an “insider” in the Capitol is a completely different situation than political advocacy. It is an honor to represent almost 200,000 people, and yet it requires a level of attention to detail that is in short supply at the Capitol. Most of my colleagues are there for the right reasons, but there is no semblance of a scientific process on complex issues. Looking back, I would have spent more time building relationships and less time sitting in my office reading bills.
Dr. Lundy: Thank you so much for representing the needs of patients in the Georgia legislature. Hopefully, there are orthopaedic surgeons reading this article who may be considering a run for office. Do you have any words of advice?
Dr. Kirkpatrick: Representation by doctors in politics is important. It is also important to thoroughly understand the politics in your district and seek guidance from those already in the process before making a decision.
Dr. Lundy: I would like to personally thank you for your years of friendship and your perseverance to run for office and faithfully serve the state of Georgia. The citizens are blessed to have such a physician protecting their rights and advocating for their issues in the state legislature.
Douglas W. Lundy, MD, MBA, is the copresident of Resurgens Orthopaedics. Dr. Lundy is also a member of the AAOS Now Editorial Board.