Gupta good choice for surgeon general

January 13, 2009 

President-elect Barack Obama made a good choice when he picked Dr. Sanjay Gupta for Surgeon General.

Sure, Gupta is a well-known TV personality, but he is also a highly respected neurosurgeon, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University’s School of Medicine and tireless advocate for preventative health care, fostering a national campaign to reverse the obesity epidemic in the United States and raising the level of access to health care for all.

Gupta is physician first, medical journalist second — that’s the impression I got when I interviewed him last year when he spoke at the Ringling Library Town Hall Series.

It was just the two of us sitting in the Van Wezel green room, at 8 a.m. The conversation lasted nearly 45 minutes. I was struck by his sense of mission, his broad grasp of national and international health issues, his physician’s sense of treating the problem, not the symptoms. His passion for public health. His concern for patients.

Those are the qualities key to the advocacy role of the surgeon general.

Gupta told me that lack of access to health care in the most pressing problem we face in America.

“We have figured out how to treat so many diseases, but so many people don’t have access to that treatment,” Gupta said. “We have become a disease treatment society. We take care of a disease after it has begun. We haven’t embraced a culture of prevention.”

There have been some critics — including a colleague of mine in the newsroom — who object to Obama’s pick because they do not sense that Gupta is a real doctor, in the sense of Dr. C. Everett Koop who held the post during the Reagan years.

I like Koop, too. But I believe Gupta follows in his footsteps as spokesman willing to tackle tough issues. Moreover Gupta still runs a full practice.

The day before our interview, Gupta performed three brain surgeries. Like, Koop, Gupta is both practicing physician and charismatic leader, qualities important to the role the surgeon general plays in fostering sound public health decision.

The surgeon general has a bully pulpit for advocating change. It’s not the surgeon general’s role to shape an administration’s health care policy — that’s what the Secretary of Health and Human Services does. The surgeon general is charged with putting key public health issues front and center before the public and policymakers. Gupta has been successfully doing that for years at CNN. Making him the surgeon general will just expand his audience that already stretches beyond the U.S. borders.

That’s what makes Dr. Sanjay Gupta the perfect choice.

Donna Wright, health and social services reporter, can be reached at 745-7049.

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