The Very Model of the Modern Surgeon General

Ten points if you can name the current Surgeon General of the United States. Ten more points if you do not work in the Department of Health and Human Services and still know the answer. Did you say Kenneth P. Moritsugu? Didn’t think so. To be fair, he is the ACTING Surgeon General, and only since August. Okay then, so who was the Surgeon General before him? I couldn’t have told you, even though I would like to think I’m fairly aware of these types of things. Give up? It was Richard H. Carmona. Oh, of course.

Contrast this with the name C. Everett Koop. If you were around in the 80s, you knew who he was, and probably even remember receiving his brochure about AIDS that was sent to every household in the US in 1988. Other Surgeon Generals like Joycelyn Elders, Antonia Novello and even to a lesser extent, David Satcher were somewhat familiar names to regular Americans during their terms. Also, we may not remember the name of the Surgeon General who was in office in 1964 (Luther Terry), but most of us are familiar with the “Surgeon General’s Warning” that appeared on all cigarette advertising and packaging as a result of the report on smoking that came out that year. What happened to the stature and visibility of this office?

The Surgeon General is the head of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a uniformed service of public health professionals who protect and promote the health of the nation. But more importantly, in my opinion, the Surgeon General is the face of public health and a symbol of the nation’s commitment to protecting and improving the health of all Americans. A key part of the job is to educate the public about disease prevention and health promotion.

While I’m sure the Surgeon General keeps busy with various health promotion initiatives, we have not heard much as a public from our Surgeon Generals since George W. Bush took office. The Surgeon General should be visible and loud, not just issuing reports and press releases, but getting in our faces and showing us how to become healthier. The Surgeon General should use his bully pulpit to exhort people to prepare for local disasters, to get their flu shots, to exercise and eat right. The potential impact of the office is being squandered.

President Bush needs to make it a priority to appoint a Surgeon General for the new term who will get in front of the public and be the spokesperson for public health that we need. Is C. Everett Koop still available?

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