If You Were Surgeon General ...



This past August, President Trump, with the advice and consent of the United States Senate, nominated Indiana Health Commissioner Jerome M. Adams, MD, MPH, as the nation’s 20th Surgeon General (SG). As the country’s “doctor,” the SG has access to the best available scientific information to advise Americans of ways to improve their health and decrease risk for illness and injury. Overseen by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, the Office of the Surgeon General has no budget or line authority. As a political appointee, the SG ranks three levels below a presidential cabinet member and reports to an assistant health secretary.1

The SG nominally oversees the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, an exclusive group of more than 6,700 public health professionals working throughout the federal government with the mission to protect, promote, and advance the health of our nation.2 In 2010, under the Affordable Care Act, the SG was designated as Chair of the National Prevention Council, which coordinates and leads 20 executive departments encouraging prevention, wellness, and health promotion activities.

Past SGs, during their time in office, have quietly gone about their duties, although some have used their platform to raise awareness of specific public health concerns. C. Everett Koop (a Reagan appointee) is among the most-remembered SGs, thanks in part to his use of the media to promote his causes, specifically smoking cessation and AIDS prevention. Newly appointed Dr. Adams, an anesthesiologist by training, is known for his focus on the opioid epidemic, tobacco use, and infant mortality.

As we’ve seen over the years, the limitations of the SG’s role equate to a mixed bag of “results.” For every C. Everett Koop (whether you agree with his views or not, he was prolific!), there are several SGs who came and went from office without making a blip on the public’s radar. Since health care remains at the forefront of our national conversation, the burning question is: If you were a consultant to the SG, which health issues would you prioritize?

I posed this question to 30 of my PA and NP colleagues. While certainly not an official survey—rather, a straw poll—I was nonetheless surprised by the overlap in responses. Here are some of the highlights.

Substance abuse/opioid crisis. Globally, one in every eight deaths result from the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. According to Humphreys et al, the implications of addiction are clear: It will do massive and increasing damage to humanity if not addressed emergently and at the source.3 But to do so, we must understand the root cause. Neuroscientific research has shown that repeated addictive drug use can rewire the brain’s motivational and reward circuits and influence decision-making.3

This is evidenced by the startling fact that every day, an average of 91 Americans die of opioid overdose.3 In March, the Director-General of the World Health Organization called for more scientifically informed public policies regarding addiction.4 The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis released a preliminary report in August recommending next steps, which included the declaration of a federal state of emergency.5

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