Sen Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), jokingly introducing himself as "the prescription that's worse than the cure," yesterday tried to make peace with the American Medical Association on a variety of health-related issues.
"I come here today with an olive branch," Kennedy told the AMA's sixth National Leadership Conference. "I hasten to add that it is not a flag of surrender. But I also emphasize that it is not a banner of attack."
It was Kennedy's first appearance ever before an AMA group - a gesture one doctor compared with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's recent trip to Jerusalem.
The reaction to the senator - who has been a constant critif of the medical establishment and who has found himself at odds with them on almost every controversial point of national medical policy - was predictably polite but unenthusiastic.
Dr. Robert B. Hunter, chairman of the association's board of trustees, said he felt the audience was "impressed by the senator's personal warmth, but found him rather inflexible."
Kennedy, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on health and scientific research, asked the AMA to join him in sponsoring a national conference on disease prevention. He said the conference would help develop a comprehensive legislative package he said he plans to introduce by spring, dealing mainly with smoking, diet, exercise, immunization and screening for particular medical problems, such as high blood pressure.
Dr. James H. Sammons, AMA executive vice president, said his staff would immediately begin discussions with Kennedy's staff that could lead to such a conference.
Kennedy predicted final action on a national health insurance program before Congress adjourns for the 1980 elections, and contended that the program would not mean "a government ear on the doctor's stethoscope."
But the 500 persons in the audience, mostly top officials of state and local medical societies and members of the AMA's policymaking House of Delegates, laughed almost scornfully when Kennedy told them that "for the vast majority of physicians . . . national health [insurance] will be no more intrusive than Medicare."
A prepared text of his speech referred to death from adverse drug reactions as 'a scandalous national epidemic" - a contention with which the AMA takes strong exception. But in delivering the speech Kennedy left that out, and merely remarked that once a drug is marketed it is outside the regulatory framework and may be used for any purpose.
Kennedy also said he favors relicensing all physicians periodically, requiring doctors to continue their educations, restructuring the peer review system, requiring second opinions before certain types of surgery and establishing a national commission to study the norms of medical practice.
After the speech Kennedy accepted questions from the audience, but none of the top leaders - the ones who have a strong voice in setting policy - asked him anything.
This was not by accident, according to AMA press spokesman Toba COhen. "We're not going to achieve anything by fighting in public," she said.