surgeon general


Doctors ‘Aghast’ That Surgeon General Nominee Blocked For Gun Control Views

Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy (AP, provided by Brigham and Women's Hospital)

Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy (AP, provided by Brigham and Women’s Hospital)

Opposition from gun groups is holding up — and may ultimately block — confirmation of U.S. surgeon general nominee Vivek Murthy, who expressed support for gun control in the wake of the Newtown shootings.

Doctor/author Atul Gawande recently tweeted: “The success of the attack on Vivek Murthy’s nomination for surgeon general, for holding views on guns that the AMA holds, is infuriating.”

Here, two doctors and one doctor-to-be who know Dr. Murthy — a Harvard- and Yale-trained physician — react similarly to the news that his nomination may be scuttled.

By Ali Khan, M.D., Sanjay Kishore and Christopher Lillis, M.D.
Guest contributors

His is the story of which American dreams are made: a first-generation immigrant who grew up in South Florida, where he worked on weekends to support his father’s small business. After winning a spot at Harvard at 16, he set his sights on medicine and leadership. He founded an international non-profit focused on HIV/AIDS youth education while at Yale for medical school – and threw on an MBA for good measure before heading back to Boston for residency training at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Since then, he’s practiced medicine while working as a serial entrepreneur, starting both private and non-profit organizations in medical research and health advocacy. He wields a blinding smile and a voice that immediately commands a room.

He’s even been to the White House – and he took his mom with him.

Dr. Murthy has been ‘derailed for a moderate position on gun violence that aligns with the vast majority of America’s health professionals.’

In another time and place, a nominee like Dr. Vivek Murthy, with a narrative so akin to conservative politicians like Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, would sail through Senate confirmation as the nation’s surgeon general.

But in our time and place, special interest groups have hijacked Dr. Murthy’s nomination, as they have the entirety of the American political process. As physicians and students of public service, we are aghast.

Under the guise that his mere mention of “gun control” following the Newtown tragedy is akin to repudiation of the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association has signaled its intense opposition to Dr. Murthy’s nomination. The NRA now promises to “score” a confirmation vote for Murthy as the basis of electoral support in the 2014 midterms – a prospect that has multiple senators wavering in their support. White House rumors suggest that a Senate vote on Dr. Murthy’s nomination will be delayed until after the midterms, in order to protect those candidates who hold the key to a Democratic Senate majority.

As physicians, we are appalled that a candidate of such high caliber – with impeccable credentials, a well-earned reputation as a “doctor’s doctor” and formidable experience in management and leadership – could be derailed for a moderate position on gun violence that aligns with the vast majority of America’s health professionals. (Never mind the fact that Dr. Murthy’s position on gun violence is no different from that of the American Medical Association, or that he explicitly confirmed that obesity, tobacco and mental health – and not gun control – would be his priorities as surgeon general.)

As Americans, however, we strongly believe that the NRA’s entry into this debate – and its immediate support by Sen. Rand Paul and others – cannot be taken lightly.

Will every qualified public health leader be held to a new standard: that a mere mention of the word “gun” is a disqualifier from public service? This new style of McCarthyism comes at a time when the United States leads the world in gun deaths and 15 months after the tragedy at Newtown. After all, even C. Everett Koop, the legendary surgeon general nominated by Ronald Reagan, described gun violence as a public health emergency.

But in our America, facts such as these have little impact in the national debate. The NRA’s influence – and that of countless special interest groups like it – cannot be ignored.

In our America, sterling qualifications, vast experience and the support of the broad medical and public health community, however, seemingly can.

Dr. Ali Khan is a practicing internist at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Sanjay Kishore is a rising medical student and recent Duke graduate. Dr. Christopher Lillis is a private practice internist in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Further reading:

CommonHealth: Boston Medical Center Trauma Docs Speak Out On Gun Control

Bloomberg Business Week: How the NRA Defeated Obama’s Surgeon General Choice: Four Blunt Points

NYT: Surgeon General Is Missing In Action


Mark Bittman, the smart, pithy New York Times columnist and food activist comes down hard on the U.S. Surgeon General today in a piece called “Our M.I.A Surgeon General.” It’s true, the nation’s doctor, Regina Benjamin can be frustratingly on-message when speaking to the press and is clearly not a risk-taker with her public health campaigns (more on our experience with this later). But Bittman is relentless here, calling her “virtually invisible” and questioning her courage. (It probably didn’t help that Benjamin declined Bittman’s request for an interview.) Here’s more from his column:

Benjamin, like most of her predecessors, is virtually invisible. Whether that is a personality trait, a lack of courage (hard to believe — she’s a Catholic who supports abortion rights), a lack of qualification or a sign of the impotence of her office is something she won’t help us figure out: her representative declined my request for an interview.

But her most public work, the 2010 document called “The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation,” has a decidedly mild Michelle Obama-ish tone. In discussing the obesity crisis, it lays the blame squarely at the feet of … the victims: “In addition to consuming too many calories and not getting enough physical activity, genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, and culture can also play a role in causing people to be overweight and obese.”

Put aside the imprecise, non-grammatical writing. Instead of talk about curbing the marketing of junk to children, we get a discussion of “limiting television viewing”; instead of banning soda from schools, we get “Make sure water is available throughout the school setting.” In short, instead of criticizing the industry for peddling and profiting from poison, it criticizes us for falling prey to it.

We’ve interviewed Benjamin several times and have always come away wishing she’d be a bit more out there and aggressive about her message, whether it’s on the importance of prevention or on exercise. Continue reading

The New York Times Asked The Surgeon General About Her Weight, Too

Please forgive this self-referential self-indulgence, but when we’re cozied up at home watching the snow swirl down, our thoughts tend to turn inward.

I’ve taken a funny bit of flak lately for asking the surgeon general about her weight when she was visiting Boston in November (See the video below). It goes, in essence: This kind of thing isn’t done by serious journalists. Too superficial. No gravitas. Will a distinguished MD-PhD want to speak with a reporter who asks the surgeon general of the United States of America about being fat?

So I just wanted to call attention to this interview with U.S. surgeon general Regina Benjamin in the latest New York TImes magazine — which is not known for any dearth of gravitas. In particular:

When you were nominated for surgeon general, your critics tried to disqualify you on the basis of your weight, saying you were perpetuating obesity rather than battling it.
My thought is that people should be healthy and be fit at whatever size they are.
What sort of exercise do you recommend for people who don’t love it?
I want exercise to be fun; don’t want it to be work. I don’t want it to be so routine that you’re bored with it. We used to jump rope a lot and double Dutch and went to a disco to have fun and enjoy ourselves. We didn’t go to the disco because somebody said, Go dance for 30 minutes.

Looks like Deborah Solomon of the Times magazine had the same feeling I did: When the top health official of a nation fighting an obesity epidemic is herself overweight, you have to ask about it. I have just one regret about that interview. I felt so darned sheepish that I let Dr. Benjamin go without asking her the logical follow-ups: So if you’ve always been active and yet you’re still heavier than the recommended weight, what is your message about that? Do you say: “If you’re overweight, never give up, keep trying to lose weight”? Or do you say, “Some bodies just need to be heavier, and we can try to be fit within those constraints”? And what are the policy implications of that message?”