New Surgeon General to Focus on Vaccinations, Other Public Health Issues

April 27, 2015 01:48 pm News Staff

Vivek Murthy, M.D., M.B.A., pledged to emphasize public health and provide direction during health crises when he was sworn in as the nation's 19th surgeon general last week.

[Former AAFP President Jeff Cain, M.D., with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., M.B.A., at Murthy's swearing-in ceremony]

Former AAFP President Jeff Cain, M.D., speaks with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., M.B.A., at Murthy's swearing-in ceremony.

AAFP President Robert Wergin, M.D., of Milford, Neb., and former AAFP President Jeff Cain, M.D., of Denver, attended the swearing-in.

During the ceremony, Murthy discussed the importance of vaccinating adults and children, reducing obesity, boosting smoking cessation rates, and supporting the National Health Service Corps, which offers loan repayment and scholarships to primary care health professionals and students. He had previously touched on some of the same topics during a stop in his 21-city listening tour attended by Julie Wood, M.D., AAFP vice president of health of the public and science and interprofessional activities, as well as in a meeting with AAFP Board members last month.

"It was a very emotional speech," Wergin said of Murthy's remarks at the swearing-in. "He talked about the importance of population health and how it can help people stay healthy, and the need to prevent disease rather than treat disease. The themes he mentioned in his address align well with our themes. We have a strong professional relationship with the surgeon general's office."

Besides serving as a public health advocate, the surgeon general is charged with taking a lead on national and international health crises. The United States did not have a confirmed surgeon general when the Ebola outbreak began last year, and Wergin noted that there were a lot of unsubstantiated reports about how the disease spreads and its potential threat, which raised unnecessary alarms.

"It's important to speak with one voice, especially when a health crisis arises," he said. "It was never more important than at that time. It won't be the last one."

After the ceremony, Murthy approached Wergin and offered a greeting.

"He said, 'Hi Bob, I'm glad you're here,'" Wergin recalled. "He knew who I was."

Murthy, a specialist in internal medicine, comes from a family of physicians. Both his father and his sister are physicians. His fiancée, Alice Chen, M.D., serves as executive director of Doctors for America, a national movement of physicians and medical students devoted to improving the health of the nation. At 37, he is the youngest surgeon general in history.

Wergin has met with Murthy several times, and the Academy lent its support to Murthy's confirmation.

After being nominated in November 2013, Murthy's candidacy stalled in the Senate for more than a year. In early December 2014, Wergin spoke at a Capitol Hill press conference, urging that Murthy be confirmed. Two weeks later, he was.

"It didn't go unnoticed" that the AAFP supported his nomination from the outset, Wergin recalled. "He sent me a personal email thanking me."

Building support for childhood vaccinations is a major initiative of the incoming surgeon general. Wergin recalled watching a public service announcement( on the topic targeted to children with his 4-year-old granddaughter. The spot showed Elmo from the children's television program Sesame Street -- with Murthy's encouragement -- receiving a relatively painless shot.

"This was an example of the new surgeon general's engagement and creativity. He is using this program to reduce the fear children have regarding vaccination," Wergin said.