Well it's about time. Nine months after the inauguration of President Obama, we finally have our Surgeon General. It couldn't have come soon enough. While her confirmation was unanimously voted on by the members of the Senate Health committee, Regina Benjamin found herself caught in a political pissing match between HHS and conservative senators with strong ties to the insurance industry.
But this column isn't so much about the temporary political hijacking as it is about why we need her now. The role of the Surgeon General is to be America's physician, to hold our collective hands during health crises and emergencies. Some Surgeons General have had quiet tenures. (can you name the Surgeon General under President Bush... either one?) Others have been impulsively vocal and had very short careers. (Think Dr. Joycelyn Elders). Others have been stand-outs and have defined the office. Democrats vilified Dr. C. Everett Koop during the confirmation process because he personally opposed abortion. But when HIV/AIDS was discovered, he was vocal about sexual transmission and spoke openly to the gay community. Then the Republicans were furious. His answer to everyone was simple. "I am a physician".
Let's be clear about the role. The post of Surgeon General is largely ceremonial and comes with a bully pulpit. The job doesn't come with much of a budget or a very big paycheck. It does come with stature, a lot of bureaucracy, and in this case, a woman who looks like she would be a good boss -- Secretary of HHS, Kathleen Sebelius.
Dr. Benjamin assumes her position in the midst of a viral pandemic. H1N1 (swine flu) has now been reported in all fifty states and is robust in 46 of them. While the virus was isolated quickly, the production of vaccine has been hampered with technical delays and the messaging from the pharmaceutical companies and the federal government has led to confusion. While I believe that Dr. Anthony Fauci and Secretary Sebelius have done extraordinary jobs spearheading the communication, the fact is that they have their day jobs to do too. And my concern is that while the messages have been on target most of the time, there have been too many messengers. In one week on MSNBC, I heard vaccine and H1N1 updates from Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, Homeland Security, Department of Defense and Department of Education. The messages were fine but there were too many messengers. The frustration within the medical community is evident and growing anger among patients is palpable.
So, welcome Dr. Benjamin. We are so glad you are here. Your job is probably more complex than it has been for any of your predecessors. You enter in the midst of a viral pandemic and a news cycle that won't give you much of a break. We will call on you to respond to the American public and those of us in the press at any time. You have dedicated your life to sitting at patients' bedsides and holding people's hands, making complicated situations easier to understand and always telling the truth. We expect you to do the same with us.