I was surprised when I first heard about Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s possible appointment to US Surgeon General by president elect Barack Obama. What type of message did it send to young people in the field of public health that the pathway to leadership was through the lens of a TV camera rather than toiling in the trenches of public health programs? The guy’s a neurosurgeon and TV reporter, not your typical public health leader. But as I thought further, I realized that the main role of the Surgeon General is communication to the US public. Dr. Gupta has incredible communications skills to translate public health message to the American people. He has years of experience in media and health policy, including a series on global health. In addition, Dr. Gupta can also benefit from his own version of the “Koop Effect”. One of the reasons that Dr. C. Everett Koop was so effective as Surgeon General was that his unique beard made him highly recognizable and his grandfatherly appearance made people comfortable with him. Having worked for years as the chief health correspondent for CNN, Dr. Gupta is already recognizable to most Americans (arguably one of the most recognizable physicians in the US) and his familiarity will bring a large measure of comfort.
The US is facing numerous domestic and international public health challenges, including healthcare reform, spiraling costs, the obesity epidemic, the aging of America, the rise of autism, environmental health challenges, emerging diseases, and bio-terrorism threats. We need a Surgeon General who people will listen to and whose advice they will act on; someone who can translate public health statistics into messages people understand and that resonate with their values and lives. The most recent Surgeon General, Dr. Richard Carmona, though a good communicator and public health practitioner, was unfortunately constrained from expressing his opinion, including the blocking of the publication of his global health report. The US needs a Surgeon General who has the trust and the ear of the President and the people.
Dr. Gupta will have to reach out to the medical and public health communities in order to gain their respect–but this won’t be difficult. Not only is Dr. Gupta an excellent communicator and respected practicing physician, but he has also done high level health policy work as a White House Fellow and is familiar with how health legislation gets made. Through reaching out to the public health community including the APHA and valuing our input, he can gain our trust and we can work with the next Surgeon General to help Americans to live healthier lives.