The senate held a hearing for Surgeon General nominee Vivek Murthy on February 25th, 2021. Should he be confirmed, Dr Murthy would return as Surgeon General for a second time. That would be a first in the entire history of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps’s 132 year existence. Interestingly, Murthy achieved many “firsts” while serving as the Surgeon General.
Murthy was with the Corps for notable accomplishments like the Ebola and Zika responses. The former earned the Corps its first ever Presidential Unit Citation. Dr. Murthy sent out a historic letter campaign to thousands of prescribers in the U.S. regarding how they can respond to the opioid epidemic. It was reminiscent of the AIDS letter campaign by previous Surgeon General Everett Koop. Murthy also issued the first Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health and the first report on electronic cigarettes in youth. His focus on mental well-being has become his modus operandi and would serve America well if he is confirmed.
Loneliness has been identified as a major cardiovascular risk factor that confers similar risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Whoa. Dr. Murthy has described the importance of social connection and the impact of loneliness on human health in many forums. He has written a book called Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. I highly recommend listening to his interview published last May of 2020 on the Tim Ferriss Show. He is very candid about his personal life, professional career, how he learned Americans are lonely, and what it felt like to be kicked out as Surgeon General. They start talking about the Surgeon General at 22:40. Ferris asks specifically about the Corps at 26:40. You can find the interview here.
Murthy’s approach to our mental well-being may have met its time to shine. The U.S. already had mental health issues before the pandemic, and now they have been exacerbated. A recent survey suggested that 40% of American adults experienced depression or anxiety symptoms in January 2021 versus just 10% from January thru June of 2019. Moreover, there have been troubling spikes in suicides and drug use in adults and teens across the country.
For example there was a spike in deaths in the town I used to live in at my last duty station, Farmington, NM, which was particularly hit hard by the pandemic. As we exit the pandemic, we’ll undoubtedly enter a time of excitement and release for some; however, many have been suffering and many more will continue to feel the mental effects for some time to come. If Dr. Murthy is confirmed as Surgeon General, he may have just the right medicine we all need: social connection and mental well-being.
Dr. Murthy stated in his recent Surgeon General hearing that his goal is to restore the public’s trust in science. I couldn’t agree more. This may be the issue of our time especially for the Public Health Service. Nevertheless many Americans have reason to remain skeptical. Trump’s former Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adam’s echoed a similar message in 2017 where he promised, “picking science over politics.” I’ll let you decide if that actually happened.
Fate and opportunity may collide for Dr. VIvek Murthy. His passion for mental well-being in light of emerging from the dark cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic could be the recipe for a legendary Surgeon General. Whether that will be beneficial to the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps is hard to say. What the Surgeon General does for the American public may not matter when it comes to the visibility of the Corps, but that’s a topic for next time.