U.S. Surgeon General Invokes “Golden Age” of Public Health

Good health drives everything.

Without it, the United States will not succeed in education, economic development or virtually any other endeavor.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy on Wednesday told a gathering at the Yale School of Public Health that a “Golden Age” of public health is within reach, an epoch marked by fairness and equality, where different sectors unite in the common cause of promoting health for all citizens.

“Public health is a key foundation for our country,” he said. “It is our collective responsibility to help the world understand this. We need young faculty and young students to step up and be part of this larger transformation in our country and around the world.”

Murthy visited the School of Public Health to deliver a Milbank Lecture as part of the school’s ongoing centennial celebration. Founded in 1915, the Yale School of Public Health is of of the oldest institutions of its type in the United States.

Describing him as “America’s doctor,” Yale President Peter Salovey introduced Murthy to the capacity audience in Winslow Auditorium (along with nearly 100 other people who watched the lecture in real time in several nearby rooms).

Salovey noted that Murthy’s interest in public health stems from his childhood when he spent time in his father’s Miami medical clinic. Today, much of his work revolves around issues such as reducing obesity and tobacco use, improving vaccination rates, decreasing stigma associated with mental illness and promoting disease prevention.

“He has devoted his life’s work to improving public health,” he said.

Salovey also took a moment to tell the gathering that Murthy was married just last month to fellow Yale graduate Alice Chen, prompting loud applause from the audience.

Murthy was confirmed as the 19th United States Surgeon General last December. In his role, he is responsible for communicating the best available scientific information to the public regarding ways to improve personal health and the health of the nation. He also oversees the operations of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, comprised of approximately 6,800 uniformed health officers who serve in locations around the world to promote, protect and advance the health and safety of the United States.

Before becoming Surgeon General, he co-founded VISIONS, an HIV/AIDS education program in India and the United States. He also co-founded the Swasthya project (“health and wellbeing” in Sanskrit), a community health partnership in rural India, to train women to be health providers and educators.

... it turns out that walking may end up be one of the most powerful tools that we have for rolling back the tide on chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart diseases.

Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General

On a personal note, Murthy told the student, faculty and staff gathered that it is always a pleasure to return to Yale, where he earned both an M.D. and an M.B.A.

“Coming to Yale feels like coming home,” he said. “When we drove into New Haven last night I felt almost a wave of ease wash over me. The memories I have here are rich, they are wonderful. I was really blessed to be able to have some time here.”

Murthy also recognized Professor Howard “Howie” Forman, who helped arrange Murthy’s two-day visit to Yale, as a dear mentor since his days as a Yale student and also as a personal friend. In addition to the School of Public Health, Murthy also spoke at the Yale schools of management and medicine, as well as Gateway Community College.

In his role as U.S. Surgeon General, Murthy travels widely around the United States and in conversations with people, he hears about their health fears and concerns. He described it as a “great urgency.”

There are the ravages of the prescription opiate epidemic in big cities and small towns, how addiction and mental illness are still viewed by too many as moral failings and not as chronic illnesses that need treatment, the rise of e-cigarettes and the crippling epidemic of adult and childhood obesity.

“What concerns me is the sense that I get from many that they have lost faith in their ability to improve their health. I sense that they feel that forces beyond their control are increasingly determining their health,” Murthy said.

But there is also cause for optimism. Murthy described a recent meeting with a family in Las Vegas who walks 1.7 miles to school each day, each way in order stay fit and to spend time together as a family. There are also community programs like one in Roanoke, Va., that promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy daily diet. A different program in Indiana brings law enforcement, educators and public health officials together to address a local opiate epidemic.

“There are inspiring stories like this that are dotted all across the country, in communities big and small,” he said.

Murthy briefly described some of the initiatives that his office has launched in partnership with others, including one that seeks to increase the amount of walking people do on a daily basis along with designing communities in order to promote and encourage perambulation.

“You might initially think about walking as a rather dull topic. What does walking really have to do with some of the complex challenges that we are facing?” he said. “But it turns out that walking may end up be one of the most powerful tools that we have for rolling back the tide on chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart diseases.”

The seven-part Milbank Lecture Series recognizes the school’s contribution to the understanding of public health as well as the Milbank Memorial Fund’s tradition of progressive public health initiatives. The fund is an endowed operating foundation that works to improve the health of populations by connecting leaders and decision makers with the best available evidence and experience. Founded in 1905, the fund engages in nonpartisan analysis, collaboration and communication on significant issues in health policy. The school’s next Milbank Lecture on October 15 will feature Ana Diez Roux, dean of Drexel University School of Public Health.

In response to a question from the audience, Murthy said that public health professionals would have a crucial role in ushering in an era of better human health.

“Who is going to bring employers and faith leaders and the YMCAs and others together to actually work on prevention measures?” he said. “I think the answer is that public health leaders have to do that. …There are people out there, who are active and willing and ready to play a role in improving health, but they are waiting for your call, they are waiting for your direction and waiting for your guidance. That’s where, I think, the future of public health lies.”

This article was submitted by Denise Meyer on September 17, 2015.