The Job of Surgeon General
Q: Which of the following is included in the formal job description for the position of surgeon general of the United States?
- Helps to craft the administration's public health policy.
- Serves as visible advocate for public health initiatives.
- Acts as media spokesperson promoting the administration's health agenda.
A: None of the above.
In the current debate as to whether President-elect Barack Obama's likely choice for the post of surgeon general, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is qualified for that job, the only thing missing is a description of what the job actually entails.
Yes, we know from precedent that the surgeon general can take on big public health battles (see C. Everett Koop's war on tobacco) or offer novel ideas for curing public health ills (see Jocelyn Elders and the teaching-masturbation-to-kids controversy). But for an actual job description -- the commonplace kind such as you find attached to any employment ad in the classifieds -- you'll have to be satisfied with this, supplied by the White House press office:
The Surgeon General serves as America's chief health educator by providing Americans the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury. The Surgeon General is appointed by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the United States Senate for a 4-year term of office. In carrying out all responsibilities, the Surgeon General reports to the Assistant Secretary for Health, who is the principal advisor to the Secretary on public health and scientific issues.
White House Assistant Press Secretary Carlton Carroll adds that "this position can be changed in a new administration to take on more, fewer or entirely different responsibilities."
The whole thing's vague enough that just about anybody qualifies.
It seems to me that the real issue here is whether we like this Dr. Gupta -- a practicing neurosurgeon and chief medical correspondent for CNN -- enough to see and hear him talk a lot over the next four years. Since he's such a big TV presence already, that should be easy for us to gauge. Any other questions -- about his gravitas, whether he values medicine as much as he values the media, whether someone who's been named one of People's Sexiest Men Alive is an appropriate choice for the nation's almost-top public health position (remember: According to the job description, the surgeon general reports to the assistant secretary for health -- not even the actual secretary!) -- are all beside the point.
Still, it's fun to speculate. What's your opinion? Should Dr. Gupta be our next surgeon general?
Jennifer LaRue Huget
January 9, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Health Policy
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