By Maria Saporta
One of Atlanta’s best-kept secrets continues to be the Morehouse School of Medicine and its sister colleges at the Atlanta University Center.
Case in point was when six former U.S. Surgeons General convened at the Morehouse School of Medicine Thursday morning with a common theme — that serving as the nation’s top doctor transcends politics.
The conference was convened by one of Atlanta’s medical stars — David Satcher, the 16th U.S. Surgeon General (1998-2002) who is now director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
It also was an opportunity to mark the upcoming 50th anniversary of the first U.S. Surgeon General’s report on smoking on health in January 2014.
Ever since reports from the Surgeons General have become ground-breaking documents that have changed behavior, not only in the United States, but around the world.
Satcher said the impact of the reports dated back to the first one in January 1964 that was presented by U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry. It documented the health dangers of smoking.
Terry was rather nervous before presenting the report to the press, and “he was smoking like crazy,” Satcher said. One of his staff members told him that he might be asked if he smoked, and Terry dismissed that saying no one would ask such a personal question. Of course, the first question Terry received was: “Do you smoke?”
“No,” Terry answered. Then he was asked if he had ever smoked. And Terry answered that he had quit 15 minutes ago.
“He never smoked again,” Satcher said. “He even wore a pin that said: ‘Thank you for not smoking.’ Even the Surgeon General can be transformed by science.”
In addition to Satcher, the other Surgeons General who participated on the program were: Regina Benjamin, 18th U.S. Surgeon General (2009 to 2013); Kenneth Moritsugu, Acting U.S. Surgeon General (2006-2007); Richard Carmona, 17th U.S. Surgeon General (2002-2006); Joycelyn Elders, 15th U.S. Surgeon General (1993– 1994); and Antonia Novello, 14th U.S. Surgeon General (1990-1993).
The program, sponsored by the Aetna Foundation, covered the topic of: “Underserved and High Risk Populations: Taking Action for Comprehensive Primary Health Care Renewal.”
All the Surgeons General agreed that the position is one that lasts a lifetime — even though they each pass the baton to another leader, they all still remain involved in the areas of public health and education.
“Today is special,” Satcher said as he addressed his colleagues. “We have to be like a relay race. We have to pass the baton, not only from one Surgeon General to the next but from all the public health professionals to the next.”
Moritsugu said that while Surgeons General are temporary residents of the office, they safeguard the integrity of the office and serve for life.
“The role of the Surgeon General is really to communicate the best information based on science and evidence, not on politics,” Moritsugu said. “It’s a bully pulpit. Everybody listens to the Surgeon General reports over the years.”
Satcher brought up the issue of mental health. Carmona brought of the issue of second-hand smoke. Elders focused on teenage pregnancy. Benjamin’s message was health prevention.
“It’s an immense privilege to be the doctor of the nation,” Carmona said. “It’s about the best science in the world.”
While some of those present were nominated by Republican presidents and others by Democratic presidents, Carmona said: “There was no light between us. We really didn’t care about the politics.”
And as an example of the impact the reports have had, Carmona said that when the second-hand smoke report was released in 2006, it was hard to find smoke-free environments when traveling to other countries. That has now changed as health ministers from other countries have been able to point to the science in that report.
Elders, who said her tenure was cut short because she addressed controversial issues such as adolescent sex, looked back on her tenure with pride. Since then “we have reduced teenage pregnancy 42 percent,” she said. “The greatest cause of poverty is children giving birth to children.”
Still great inequities in health care exist, Elders said.
“We have got health care for the rich, and we’ve got sick care for the poor,” Elders said. And it’s not a matter of money because the United States spends $2 trillion on health care — more than any other country, but doesn’t get a good return on its investment.
Satcher said change doesn’t come easy. Just like it was not easy to get people to accept the dangers of smoking, today some of the biggest health challenges are obesity and untreated mental illnesses. Under the Affordable Care Act, all insurers must cover mental health, he said.
The challenge, however, is how the Affordable Care Act will be implemented. As Satcher said: “That’s were we need leadership.”
The last time the Morehouse School of Medicine convened a group of U.S. Surgeons General was in 1998 — right when Satcher was beginning his term in the office.
The only disappointing element of the Thursday conference was that there were still seats available in the auditorium at the Morehouse School of Medicine. When such an impressive group of the nation’s public health leaders gather in Atlanta at such a pivotal time in our nation’s health care debate the auditorium should have been standing room only.
Sometimes we don’t truly appreciate what’s going on in our own back yard.