Why Regina Benjamin was an ineffective Surgeon General

Recently, way beneath all the press about Obamacare, there have been articles panning the president’s pick as the next Surgeon General of the United States. Wait a minute. What happened to the last Surgeon General?

Six months ago, family physician Dr. Regina Benjamin stepped down as the first Surgeon General under President Obama. Quick! Name one accomplishment under Dr. Benjamin. I can’t either. What happened?

Dr. Benjamin was a rising star in the medical community. In 1995, she was the first African-American woman to be elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees. She gained a lot of notoriety following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as one of the only physicians treating patients in her community of Bayou La Batre. I remember seeing her speak in person in 2007 at an AAFP conference. She had a soft spoken presentation, but told a compelling story.

Following the 2008 presidential election, there was a lot of buzz in the press about the possibility of Sanjay Gupta being nominated as Surgeon General. When that did not materialize, Dr. Benjamin’s nomination was announced. The family medicine community rejoiced. However, the press, who was clearly pulling for a Sanjay Gupta nomination, lashed out with headlines like “Is Regina Benjamin, Surgeon General Nominee, Overweight?

This Surgeon General tenure was doomed from the start. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Dr. Benjamin and her work. She’s a nice person, but I think this was her downfall as well. Memorable Surgeon Generals include people like C. Everett Coop and Joycelyn Elders. Why? Well, I thought they brought some controversy to the office, and to get attention in Washington DC, you need some controversy.

In Dr. Benjamin’s TED talk, she states that “One person can make a difference.” When it comes to government and politics, I disagree with this. The other lesson learned from this doomed Surgeon General tenure is no one person can make an impact in the huge Washington bureaucracy. You need a great team around you and/or a huge amount of supporters within the Washington machine to get anything done there.

This lesson is important for the #FMRevolution activist community to know. Maybe we could have done a better job pushing back on the press when negative stories were sprouting up about Dr. Benjamin. I believe this negative press removed most (if not all) her potential effectiveness as a Surgeon General.

One of these days, there will be another opportunity for a family physician to be Surgeon General of the United States. The primary care and family medicine community has to prepare for this by looking at our leadership development and advocacy pipelines. Not only do we need to groom tomorrow’s leaders, but also we need to build the numbers of advocates in the public and private sectors to help the next family physician make a difference as Surgeon General of the United States.

Mike Sevilla is a family physician who blogs at his self-titled site, Dr. Mike Sevilla.

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