For his confident leadership during difficult times, and his longtime advocacy for medicine at the state and national levels, the Texas Medical Association bestowed its highest honor upon Austin colon and rectal surgeon David C. Fleeger, MD.
Calling on his fellow physicians to speak up and stand up for their patients and colleagues, Dr. Fleeger accepted the Distinguished Service Award during TexMed 2022 in Houston in late April.
“I’m sure every recipient of this award has felt as I do: honored and humbled,” Dr. Fleeger said. “I don’t really consider what I’ve done all that ‘distinguished.’ I think of myself as a doctor in the trenches every day, trying to be a good physician and a good surgeon.”
Among his extensive involvement in TMA are numerous roles in which he could influence health care infrastructure and policy, believing he could improve care for patients by improving the system.
“I was concentrating in areas that affect the day-to-day practice of medicine for most physicians, certainly private practice physicians,” he said. “Health care reform, health information exchange; these things affect the doctor in the exam room and affect our patients.”
He rose through the ranks to become TMA’s 154th president in 2019. The association benefited from his deep knowledge of health infrastructure when the COVID-19 pandemic hit midway through his term.
As the state of Texas was managing distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospitals and health care entities to fight COVID-19, private physician practices initially were overlooked. “It really wasn’t on [state officials’] radar,” Dr. Fleeger said. “They had no idea doctors needed PPE and they still needed to be seeing patients for things entirely unrelated to COVID-19, like cancer.”
He and other TMA leaders worked with officials from the Texas Division of Emergency Management to establish a system that ultimately distributed more than 23 million masks to physicians statewide through TMA and Texas county medical societies.
“[That mask distribution to doctors] was one of the most important and far-reaching advocacy efforts in recent TMA history,” said Scott Clitheroe, MD, president of the Travis County Medical Society (TCMS).
“I can’t think of a time in my career when I’ve been prouder of both the doctors and the health care professions in general, and certainly of our association,” said Dr. Fleeger, who also chaired the Texas COVID-19 Health Industry Strike Force, a collaboration of leaders from hospital, nursing, academic, public health, long-term care, and other groups.
Dr. Fleeger gravitated to TMA early in his career as a member of the TMA Young Physician Section and the American Medical Association Young Physicians Section House of Delegates. He later served on the TMA Board of Trustees and remains active in TEXPAC, TMA’s political action committee, and the TMA Foundation, TMA’s philanthropic arm.
Dr. Fleeger participated on – and led – several TMA councils and committees during his 41 years as a TMA member, including those related to physician distribution and health care access, practice management services, health care quality, and health care reform. Two governors appointed him to terms on the Texas Health Services Authority, which oversees the electronic exchange of health information in Texas. A past president of TCMS and the Texas Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, Dr. Fleeger also served 20 years in the AMA House of Delegates.
Dr. Fleeger still practices medicine full time at his nine-member group practice in Austin.
“I’ve had wonderful patients, and I think I’ve impacted their lives. I did a five-hour cancer surgery [the other day], and hopefully that patient is cured from cancer,” he said. “The actual day-to-day patient care is what ultimately makes me the proudest.”
“He’s a doctor’s doctor, and we all need to be grateful to him for exhibiting to the world what a caring doctor looks like,” said retired Austin orthopedic surgeon C. Bruce Malone, MD, who presented Dr. Fleeger the award. “Throughout his career, people have sought David out to lead. And he has done each task assigned to him with a calm resolve to advocate for his patients and the profession.”
In his acceptance speech, Dr. Fleeger stressed some of the duties that physicians have as professionals and encouraged his colleagues to “fight the good fight.”
“We need to make sure our elected officials understand that the wealthiest nation on Earth should be able to provide a sound baseline of care to even the poorest of its citizens,” he said. “It is unethical for them to rely on our devotion to our patients to absorb the cost of care to the unfunded.
“We have an obligation to stand up to the insurance companies that put profits above patient. We have an obligation to stand up to hospital systems and physician employers that would put patients at risk under the false flag of quality and value. As professionals, we have an obligation to be lifelong learners and to advance the science of medicine. This means standing against those who would put unfounded beliefs before science and truth.”
Several organizations have recognized Dr. Fleeger’s hard work and dedication to patients. The TMF Health Quality Institute, which he chaired, awarded him for meritorious service, and TCMS named Dr. Fleeger its Physician of the Year in 2012.
Texas A&M University College of Medicine – where he received his medical degree in 1985 – bestowed its Distinguished Alumni Award to Dr. Fleeger. He completed residency programs at the Mayo Clinic School of Graduate Medicine Education and the Louisiana State University Schumpert Medical Center.
St. David’s Healthcare – where he was formerly a chief of surgery and chief of staff – selected Dr. Fleeger for its HCA Dr. Thomas Frist Humanitarian Award in recognition of his annual commitment to volunteer medical mission work in Panama and Guatemala, where most residents are poor and lack health care. He and his wife of 37 years, Jamie Fleeger, have volunteered there for 20 years with Christian Medical Missions.
“We just fell in love with the people we met there,” Dr. Fleeger said. “We’re delivering the most basic of health care to them, but at least we’re providing them something.”
He finds the experience extremely gratifying, though the setting differs greatly from his typical exam room.
“[In the Guatemalan makeshift clinic] there’s a single light bulb hanging over you, or in Panama we’re always in the middle of an orange orchard … and the pigs are coming around and lying right next to us while we’re examining patients,” he said.
The avid photographer’s images documenting his global ventures rival those featured in any travel magazine. He enjoys seeing the world with his wife and their daughter and son-in-law, Lauren and Jim Seesel.