… and it’s not because he’s my age with a face that looks 10 years younger. Not just that at least.
I watched Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremony for the new Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, and came away immensely impressed by the man. As a speaker, he wasn’t as impassioned as Barack Obama, or as funny as Joe Biden (especially when the VP took a jab at Murthy’s detractors.) But my overwhelming impression:
This guy GETS it! In a way that too many public health leaders don’t.
There were 4 things I was particularly impressed by:
1) Putting health equity at the top of his agenda
It’s not what he said but when he said it that resonated. This quote fromhis Twitter feed was one of the first things out of his mouth, signaling the need for health equity to lead any discussion of improving the country’s health.
In public health in the U.S., there’s an overwhelming focus on overall population health. We rejoice if the country’s total obesity prevalence drops a point or two. This priority is reflected in health policies that are usually designed to, at best, benefit everyone equally. The end result of that approach – policies end up benefitting those who already benefit from the system. Unless you design policies to target health disparities first.
2) No “rah rah” promises
On a related note, I appreciated that he did NOT make any rah-rah pledges that the U.S. would become “the healthiest nation” in the world. This slogan has been communicated a lot lately, particularly during National Public Health Week (April 6-12). The slogan is catchy, ambitious, well-intended … but, frankly, a little absurd.
You cannot be the healthiest nation without reducing health disparities. That’s not a moral statement; it’s simple math. Many leaders understand this, but too many don’t. When I hear people talk about making the U.S. the healthiest nation, reducing health disparities is often a footnote. Again, I was happy to see Murthy make health equity the headline instead.
3) Recognizing that health disparities are not about health
Murthy talked about four E’s – education, employment, environment, and the economy – as root causes of public health problems. As he said, improving the country’s health requires involvement from sectors that we don’t instinctively associate withhealth (e.g., schools, housing, transportation.)
Investing in other sectors may be a more efficient strategy than even, say, doubling the NIH budget, as Newt Gingrich proposed on Wednesday. Gingrich’s recommendation was music to the ears of every grant-chasing scientist, myself included. Yet I couldn’t help wondering if investing in more health science is really the best use of resources.
Did I just offend my entire profession?
4) How he communicates
Finally, I was impressed by his style of reaching people. I watched the ceremony via Twitter, as it was broadcast live through Periscope. @Surgeon_General was tweeting throughout the ceremony. Murthy’s header image on Twitter is a picture of him posing with Elmo, as part of a recent campaign to promote vaccines. He understands the value of communication and using modern tools to appeal to wide audiences.
Does all this mean anything? Maybe not. It was just a speech. But Murthy showed all the signs and symptoms of someone who truly understands the root causes of health problems in the U.S.
That’s not as common as you’d hope. I was recently at an event where a public health leader was asked if we should invest more to reduce health disparities. The leader’s response, which I’m paraphrasing: “Focusing on health disparities is not a good business model.” I’m guessing the new Surgeon General would’ve passionately disagreed with that.
So there you have it – my new man crush. Smart, insightful … and I’m jealous of his face.
(You can read more about the Surgeon General’s views on health here.)
I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, where I specialize in childhood obesity policy research and systems science. This is my personal blog; any views or opinions expressed do not represent the University of Texas (or anyone else with power.)
My research has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, CNN, Wall Street Journal, and several other media outlets. You can follow me on Twitter at @DanTaber47, where I often tweet about obesity news, school nutrition, public transit, systems science, and occasionally random topics like Seattle sports, marathon training, or my latest obscure vacation destination.