If, this Monday afternoon, you had a public health concern, chances are the person who could answer your questions was onstage at Ernest E. Morial Convention Center. That's because five former surgeons general, along with the current acting surgeon general, joined forces to talk about the importance of public health at APHA's 142nd Annual Meeting and Exposition. This special session, "The Doctors Are In," drew crowds and applause.
Acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak, MD, MPH, opened the session with a call to action, and a rumination on the importance of being the nation's top doctor. "When the surgeon general speaks, people want to hear," he told the crowd.
Former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, MD, MBA (no relation to our own APHA Executive Director, Georges Benjamin, MD!), also spoke about some of the achievements her office was able to reach during her tenure, from 2009 to 2013, including this biggie: She created a mandate that prohibits Public Health Service officers from smoking in uniform.
Former acting Surgeon General Steven Galson, MD, MPH, noted that his tenure in the office, from 2007 to 2009, shared many parallels with Lushniak's current service. Those similarities include a contentious Congress — and some nay-saying about the role of the surgeon general. No matter, said Galson. The American public needs a surgeon general to guide public health principles.
Former Surgeon General David Satcher, MD, PhD, FAAFP, FACPM, FACP, who served under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said that the work the surgeon general does is "irreplaceable." And indeed, his work during his tenure was all that and more. He issued the first Surgeon General's Reports on mental health and obesity and "The Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior."
Former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, MD, joked that the she had the shortest tenure in the position, at just 15 months, but she had plenty to say: she called the U.S. health care system "the best sick care system in the world." She drew great applause for saying we should invest more in our health. She pointed out that "ignorance is not bliss," and mentioned the reduction of teen pregnancies and importance of reproductive health information as particular achievements during her term.
But it was former Surgeon General Antonia Novello, MD, the first female surgeon general and "VIP: very proud Puerto Rican," who brought the crowd to its feet — and to laughter, many times over.