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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.

Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, is a correspondent on CNN and CBS. (Getty Images)

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?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  January 9, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Health Policy  
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His knowledge plus his communication skills
will be a pleasure to listen to. He is
someone who our youth will listen to as
they are used to his commentaries on CNN.
His history is that no subject is taboo to
discuss. He has respect going into the
appointment. What a change!!

Posted by: 8859 | January 9, 2009 8:07 AM | Report abuse

Yes, I think Dr. Gupta is a great candidate for Surgeon General. He is a knowledgeable, well-spoken and very attractive spokesperson for healthy habits.

Posted by: bvogt1 | January 9, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

A better question is whether we really need a 'surgeon general.' Dr. Gupta already does an admirable job of educating the American public on CNN, and he does it without taxpayer provided income. Does the job of surgeon general really bring added value to the American people, or does it merely duplicate a role that science advisors and health care experts perform for most major media outlets?

Posted by: vesseldoc | January 9, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

The Surgeon-General is a three-star admiral and head of a 7000-member uniformed service, the Public Health Service.

The PR role is a recent innovation, and probably a bad idea. We don't need a single national "nagger-in-chief" who makes occasional TV cameos. Instead, we need a comprehensive program of health education.

In a country where health care makes up 7 percent of the economy, and the vast majority of chronic health problems are self-inflicted due to poor lifestyle choices, hiring a single "talking head" to try to correct the situation is like bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon.

Posted by: DupontJay | January 9, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Here is what the Office of the Surgeon General website says:

The Office of the Surgeon General, under the direction of the Surgeon General, oversees the operations of the 6,000-member Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service and provides support for the Surgeon General in the accomplishment of his other duties. The Office is part of the Office of Public Health and Science in the Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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 acting Surgeon General is Rear Admiral Steven K. Galson, M.D., M.P.H.

So, it's not just the White House press release that furnishes the job description. And the article fails to note the Surgeon General's primary job which is to head the Public Health Service, a uniformed service.

Any qualified physician can fill the role of Surgeon General.

Posted by: dcubed | January 9, 2009 6:49 PM | Report abuse

While I like the idea of appointing a physician who can communicate well with the public, I'm not sure that Sanjay Gupta is the very best choice. His CNN reports are often fraught with inaccuracies which lead me to believe that he is a bit sloppy in his reporting. He was a White House fellow for a year so that should give him some background in policy-making, but he has no administrative/leadership experience. Who knows, maybe he'll be great. Right now I think he was an "eh" choice.

Posted by: commentator3 | January 9, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Sanjay Gupta has been repeatedly called a shill for the pharmaceutical industry.

Lots of companies will make good money if he is made Surgeon General, and then will pay him back later with lucrative speaking and consulting deals.

Posted by: thoughts | January 9, 2009 8:32 PM | Report abuse

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