On Dec. 15, 2014, 37-year-old hospitalist and internist Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, was sworn in as the 19th surgeon general of the United States. He is the youngest person to hold the post and the first of Indian-American descent.
Dr. Murthy said in a February 26 conference call that, as the nation’s highest physician, he plans to focus on the challenges of obesity and chronic illness—especially diabetes and cardiovascular disease—as well as advocate for expanded health coverage, modernize communications from the surgeon general’s office, and work with local communities to improve the health of all Americans.
He also highlighted the ways in which his work as a hospitalist will inform his new role.
“Being a hospitalist has given me a wonderful view into the challenges people face during moments of acute illness,” said Dr. Murthy, who practices as a hospitalist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with patients and their families during moments of crisis, and I have a deep appreciation for how important it is to not only have healthcare and a healthcare system that takes care of people, but also how hard we need to work in preventing illness in the first place.”
Dr. Murthy recently completed part of a nationwide listening tour, visiting communities around the country to hear about the issues they face.
“In every place we visited, there was great concern about obesity, chronic disease, mental illness, substance abuse, and vaccination rates, especially with the current outbreak of measles,” Dr. Murthy said.
As a result, he plans to focus heavily on community health, working on three approaches: taking care of people where they are, equipping children with the tools and education they need to lead healthy lives, and building cross-sector collaborations to address the social aspects of health and disease.
Dr. Murthy has experience in this arena, as co-founder of a community health project in India called Swasthya (Sanskrit for health and well-being), where women were enlisted as health providers and educators.
Changes may also be in store for medical training; Dr. Murthy says he hopes to better integrate primary care and public health, areas that he said have “traditionally been more separate than they need to be.”
“Physicians are an important part of improving public health for the country,” Dr. Murthy said. “One of the first [priorities] is to get the message out to the public about the importance of vaccinations, particularly measles.”
Many parents, he said, would benefit from hearing from their doctors that vaccines are safe, effective, and one of the best ways to protect their children’s health. Most are not strongly opposed to vaccinations; they just lack the right information.
As surgeon general, Dr. Murthy serves as the country’s top public health spokesperson, overseeing the 6,700-member U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.
The time he spent in his parents’ primary care office in his hometown of Miami inspired Dr. Murthy to pursue medicine. He earned his MBA and MD from Yale and already founded a drug development software company, TrialNetworks (now DrugDev TrialNetworks), as well as two nonprofits, Doctors for America (formerly Doctors for Obama) and VISIONS Worldwide, Inc., which is dedicated to HIV and AIDS education.
In Boston, working as a hospitalist both before and after major health reform efforts in the state, Dr. Murthy saw the difference that access to health insurance made in the lives of his patients. Now, as the country’s top doctor, he wants to do “everything possible” to ensure a high-quality, lower-cost healthcare system in the U.S.
His mission is especially relevant this year, as the Supreme Court takes on another challenge to the Affordable Care Act in King v. Burwell.
“I am concerned that patients may be in a situation, and citizens may be in a situation, where they lose coverage and access to healthcare in the coming months or years, depending on the ruling,” he said. “I want to emphasize this kind of coverage is essential to patients.”
Kelly April Tyrrell is a freelance writer in Madison, Wis.