Recently, the new surgeon general of the United States, Vivek Murthy, was officially sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden. Congratulations to him, it’s quite an achievement at the relatively young age of 37. Nobody can doubt the hard work, intelligence and passion that must have gone into reaching such a height.
His nomination was first put forward at the end of 2013, and he faced something of an uphill political battle until he was officially confirmed over a year later. Some of the controversy raged over his supposed advocacy for gun control, while others simply thought he was too inexperienced for the job. Let’s step back for a moment and look at his stellar educational credentials. He went to college at Harvard and has a combined MD/MBA degree from Yale. He completed his residency training and later practiced medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, one of the nation’s top university academic centers.
Along the way, he was commendably involved in organizations that helped with health education in the Third World. But the thing that really made a name for himself were his organizing skills as the founder of Doctors for America, a political organization that advocated for President Obama and health care reform. This was probably the single biggest achievement that led to him becoming known on the national political stage and eventually becoming the nominee for surgeon general.
During Vivek Murthy’s long confirmation process, I received many emails and social media shares in support of him, citing a number of reasons why everyone should back him. These ranged from simply being because he was President Obama’s choice, to other more personal reasons why I should support him. One of the reasons was because he was a hospital medicine physician — the same specialty that I am. OK, that’s great for our specialty, but I found this reason alone a little bit flimsy considering the prestige and importance of the position.
Another reason, which I found the most irritating (bordering on insulting) was because he is of Indian origin — just like myself. I’m not even going to get into why race alone should never be a reason for supporting anyone, and although I’m very proud of my background and culture, that’s not enough to make me ever support someone without fully understanding what they’re really all about as a person, nor is it the way that I’ve been brought up to think.
No, my sole reason for not being supportive of his nomination — which I received some flack for when I said this amongst friends and colleagues — is that I simply thought he had not achieved enough within the medical field itself. In my opinion, a surgeon general should have practiced medicine for a considerable amount of time before being a viable candidate. They should not only have proven themselves to truly be a top doctor and role model, but should have worked long enough in the health care system to profoundly understand it. Being primarily a political advocate is not enough. Same goes for any other similar position where you should be at the top of your profession, whether it’s a Supreme Court nominee or attorney general.
There’s nothing wrong with doctors being politically active and supporting a presidential nominee, but does that alone necessarily qualify someone for a position that is widely seen as the nation’s top doctor? Over the years since the post was first established in 1871, it has been occupied by a number of very accomplished physicians. Dr. Walter Wyman, who served for 20 years from 1891 to 1911, worked in a city hospital and then private practice before getting involved in cutting-edge hygiene and bacteriological research. Dr. Luther Terry, best known for his warnings about the health dangers of tobacco, was a notable pathologist and teacher before he was appointed by John F. Kennedy. Dr. Charles Everett Koop, appointed by Ronald Reagan, was a highly accomplished pediatric surgeon at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia before his tenure. In his time overseeing the surgical department, he helped establish America’s first neonatal surgical intensive care unit.
This is nothing personal against Vivek Murthy. I’m sure if I ever had the honor of meeting him, from what I’ve seen of his interviews and discussions, he’s a thoughtful, highly intelligent and sincere individual with good intentions. His personal story, as the child of immigrants who went through a great deal to get to the shores of the United States, is admirable and represents the fulfillment of the American dream. And now he’s the new surgeon general. As with any job, it’s what you do when you get there and not how you got there that counts. That’s what people will remember. And with that, I wish him all the luck in the world and hope he succeeds.
Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha and High Percentage Wellness Steps: Natural, Proven, Everyday Steps to Improve Your Health & Well-being. He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.