An unfinished agenda: keeping people healthy

At Commencement, a former surgeon general urges access to health care and sex education.

Growing up in a small town in Arkansas, M. Joycelyn Elders, M.D., never saw a physician until she went to college. But in 1993 she became the nation’s top doctor, and as surgeon general her outspoken support of sex education provoked controversy. Access to knowledge about sexual health issues was a theme she echoed in her Commencement address at the School of Medicine in May, and the crowd loved it.

Elders told the 96 graduating students—who offered standing ovations at the beginning and end of her address—that an increase in HIV infections, rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases and the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the industrialized world prove that there’s an important place for sexual-health education in schools. “You can’t keep people healthy if you don’t educate them,” said Elders, professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “And you can’t educate them if they’re not healthy.”

Although she has long advocated abstinence, she also feels that young people need to know about safe sex. “The vows of abstinence,” she told the cheering crowd, “break far more easily than a latex condom.”

She also cautioned the graduates that, despite having the best medical education, the best training, the best hospitals and the best colleagues in the world, they have a huge unfinished agenda. “We need to make sure we have improved access to care for all of our people,” she said, noting that more than 40 million people in the United States lack health insurance. Elders ended on a note of optimism, asking the graduates to use their power, prestige and position in their communities to effect change.

At the Commencement on Harkness Lawn, the Class of 2005 honored Robert D. Auerbach, M.D., HS ’87, lecturer in obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, with the Francis Gilman Blake Award for outstanding teaching. Jennifer M. Gaudiani, M.D., a resident in internal medicine, received the Betsy Winters House Staff Award, given to the resident who has made the most significant contribution to the education of medical students. This year’s class gift was the largest ever: $2,000 was given to the Society for Distinguished Teachers, and $2,000 was pledged to the medical school’s endowment for scholarships, an amount that will be matched by the university.

The Bohmfalk Prize for teaching basic sciences was awarded to a husband-and-wife team for the first time: Marie L. Landry, M.D., HS ’77, FW ’81, professor of laboratory medicine, and Peter S. Aronson, M.D., FW ’75, the C.N.H. Long Professor of Medicine and professor of cellular and molecular physiology. The Bohmfalk Prize for teaching clinical science went to Michael K. O’Brien, M.D., Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of surgery (gastroenterology). Sharon K. Inouye, M.D., M.P.H. ’89, professor of medicine, received the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award, while Catherine Chiles, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry, won the Leah M. Lowenstein Prize, which recognizes faculty who promote humane and egalitarian medical education. The first annual Alvin R. Feinstein Award for outstanding clinical skills was awarded to Ronald R. Salem, M.D., associate professor and chief of surgery (oncology).

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