A Surgeon General for the 21st Century | Commentary

Our health care system is undergoing profound changes in how we pay for and deliver care. Yet some of our most intractable health problems — such as obesity, diabetes, tobacco use and emerging diseases — require creative public health approaches as well as high-quality, efficient care. Addressing the health issues that matter to Americans will require bipartisan compromise guided by strong leadership from medical professionals.

The nation would benefit from having a leader who could bridge the worlds of health care and public health, and communicate about both. The current Ebola outbreak lays bare how versatile our health leaders must be: They must coordinate scientific efforts, serve as a trusted public spokesperson and mobilize medical professionals nationally and globally. President Barack Obama’s nominee for surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, is that kind of leader.

Murthy’s broad experience in health equips him well for the role. He has cared for thousands of patients and has trained hundreds of medical residents at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, one of Harvard Medical School’s hospitals. And he has spent the past 20 years building initiatives to improve the health of communities in the United States and across the world. Dr. Murthy has created programs that have educated tens of thousands of youth about HIV prevention, and he has created rural community partnerships to improve health in under-served areas in India. As the co-founder of Doctors for America, Murthy has also brought together thousands of physicians across all 50 states to strengthen bipartisan dialogue among doctors and policymakers.

Today’s rapidly shifting health landscape requires a surgeon general who can shape a public health vision around technological change, scientific advances, and new ways to engage communities. Murthy created a successful technology company solving important challenges in delivering safe new medications to the public more quickly. He has published research on vaccine development and the enrollment of women and minorities in clinical trials. Both clinically and in his community-building work, he has demonstrated a passion for addressing public health challenges for all people — including those who are traditionally disadvantaged, such as poor and disabled patients and ethnic minorities.

Most importantly, Murthy demonstrates a clear and thoughtful understanding of how important it is to transform our health care system from sick care to one based on wellness. He served on the national Prevention Advisory Group, assisting in the creation of the first National Prevention Strategy. And his high-tech savvy means he understands how to use information technology as a public health tool to reach younger audiences. We should embrace a 21st century surgeon general who could infuse the role with creative vigor as well as scientific rigor.

For these reasons, it is no surprise that national medical and public health organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, American Cancer Society, and the American Public Health Association have enthusiastically endorsed Murthy’s nomination. Former Surgeon General David Satcher, who served under Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, has written: “The Office of Surgeon General requires a strong and thoughtful leader who can navigate political pressures to champion health promotion for the American People, and Dr. Murthy has proven his capabilities in that capacity.”

We are in an unprecedented time of change and opportunity in our nation’s health. Yet the position of surgeon general has been vacant for more than a year. This is no time for politics to overshadow the important work that lies ahead. Vivek Murthy should be confirmed as surgeon general; he is the right person to be America’s doctor.

Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, is a former Senate majority leader. Tom C. Korologos is a Republican strategist at DLA Piper in Washington, D.C.

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