As President Obama formally launches his administration's health care reform effort, he should pay special attention to the The Institute of Medicine's recently released report, "HHS in the 21st Century: Charting A New Course for A Healthier America." This report establishes a strategic roadmap for revitalizing the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and recommends "a more prominent and powerful role for the Surgeon General."
Surgeon Generals have used their position to educate Americans on important public health issues and have been regarded as "Americas's Doctor." With the nation poised to take on health reform, the incoming Surgeon General will have the added responsibility of educating and advocating for Americans on the redesign of the health care system.
But who will be Americas Doctor? The real question is: Who would want to be when politics trumps science? Last week, Dr. Sanjay Gupta withdrew his name from consideration for Surgeon General. This is no surprise since other prominent physicians also have turned down the opportunity because the role has been marginalized, checkered with controversy and highly politicized. In fact, the position officially has been vacant since August 2006 and vacant a third of the time since 1973.
However, with a seemingly endless list of problems to tackle, America needs its doctor more than ever. We need a passionate and powerful Surgeon General who educates and advocates on public health issues with the same independence as the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control. Educating Americans with unbiased, balanced information establishes the Surgeon General as a trusted authority among the nation's citizens. When people trust their doctor -- whether it's their personal physician or the Surgeon General -- that doctor is more likely to favorably influence their healthcare behavior and adherence to their medical treatment plan.
The trust that is built should be the foundation for a national, highly visible platform that ushers in a new culture of caring about one's own health and healthcare. With obesity, heart disease, cancer and countless other conditions being highly influenced by lifestyle and self-care choices, individual behavior changes are our best hope for having a meaningful impact on the escalating cost of healthcare. But behavior cannot be legislated; it only can be influenced. The person with the best opportunity to influence personal accountability is the Surgeon General -- America's doctor.
The Surgeon General needs to assure that health is a part of health reform.
But first, the Office of the Surgeon General needs to be resuscitated-STAT.
Archelle Georgiou, MD is President of Georgiou Consulting, LLC and former Chief Medical Officer of UnitedHealthcare.