Thursday, January 8, 2009
Off the top of my head -- and from where else does most of this stuff come? -- I find the idea of Sanjay Gupta as Surgeon General puzzling. I say this as a physician, and as a medical school classmate of a recent Surgeon General. One thing the two have in common is that I contacted (or tried to) each of them seeking endorsement blurbs for my book. Dave kindly and thoughtfully demurred. In seeking out Sanjay, I discovered there are at least two Dr Sanjay Guptas, a fact which I could have shared with a few internet bloggers and saved them some embarrassment. But I digress.
I think Sanjay Gupta and I are approximately equally qualified to be Surgeon General, other than the fact that I'm more experienced. We are both surgeons. Let's assume he's as good at his branch, neurosurgery, as I was at mine, even if he has many fewer years under his belt than I. Certainly, he's much more well-known; but really, it's only a matter of degree in a field that otherwise is pretty comparable: we each participate in media as a way of imparting knowledge and opinion in the field of medicine. Other than the fact that his is TV and mine is the blogosphere (I'm referring, of course, to my other blog), it's of a piece. I don't claim his level of fame, obviously, nor of influence. But there was a time when my writing was getting a bit of mainstream notice, having been mentioned in the New York Times, the LA Times, the Chicago Sun Times (what is it about "times?") and, egad, even Foxnewsdotcom. So what's the difference, curriculum vitally?
As far as I can tell, the Surgeon General has two roles. One, which would seem potentially quite important and demanding, is the as highest official in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Theoretically, this would require knowledge of public health issues and policy, and some management experience. On the other hand, the PHSCC is not to be confused with the Public Health Service, a much bigger deal, under which the PHSCC serves. The critical letter in PHSCC is the first "C." The outfit is, formally, like a branch of the military: they wear uniforms like Navy people, and the Surgeon General is ranked as a three-star admiral. They all run around doing stuff, but they aren't the ones actually setting public health policy.
Unlike Sanjay G, I was in the military, which gives me leg up. In fact, "Surgeon" was part of my official title. "Flight Surgeon." Part of my duty was, in fact, as public health officer for the bases on which I served. Fortunately, someone else took care of it -- the veterinarian, as I recall -- but it was on my list of things to do. So there's two legs up.
I'm guessing there are lifers who actually run the show. So the Surgeon General is more about the other role, namely being a public face on health care issues. Some have made a name for themselves in that regard. Luther Terry, most positively, got the labels on the cigarettes. C. Everett Koop helps people who've fallen and can't get up. Joycelyn Elders tried to help people who did get it up.
Clearly S. Goop has little to bring to the table policy-wise, but he could be seen as a skillful conveyor of information to the public. That's what I assume is behind the idea: a weapon in the arsenal to be used to sell Obama's health care plans to the public. If the PHSCC is like other bureaucracies that seem to run on no matter who's at the top, I suppose it makes some sort of sense.
But he should have chosen me.