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Our collective will, says the Surgeon General, can give “every man, woman, and child a fair shot at good health”

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2016 - Winter


When Vivek H. Murthy, M.D. ’03, M.B.A. ’03, returned to Yale in September, it was his first visit to his alma mater in the navy blue uniform of the U.S. Surgeon General. As he walked through the campus during his two days at Yale, he encountered constant reminders of the five years he spent in New Haven as a student—the shade tree on Hillhouse Avenue where he studied and wrote in his journal; the lecture hall where a classmate was so intent on taking notes that he never noticed when the professor called on him; and the former teachers who are now his colleagues.

During a talk in Harkness Auditorium, one of four he gave in New Haven, Murthy fielded a question from Cary Gross, M.D., professor of medicine, who said, “Welcome back. You’ve made us all proud.”

Murthy turned to the audience and said, “Dr. Cary Gross was, in fact, my thesis advisor.” And to Gross, “I just had a flashback to sitting in your office.”

The exchange was a reminder that Murthy is just 12 years out of med school and one of the youngest surgeons general in recent history. And that his ties to the School of Medicine are both recent and strong. “It really feels like coming home,” he said. “I spent five years here, exploring new ideas, meeting new people.”

He came at the invitation of Howard P. Forman, M.D., M.B.A., a mentor since Murthy’s student days. “He agreed immediately,” said Forman, professor of radiology and medical imaging, of economics, of management, and of public health, and director of the M.D./M.B.A. Program. “It was just a matter of finding the time.”

In Murthy’s talks at Yale and at Gateway Community College, he advanced his vision of a healthy nation—one that relies on partnerships and collaborations that may seem like strange bedfellows. Take shopping malls. For many of us, they symbolize consumerism and crass consumption. Others see them as a convenient place to shop or hang out, a place where you can buy everything from handbags to sleeping bags, enjoy a meal, and take in a movie.

Murthy sees a partner.

Such a seemingly offbeat collaboration is central to Murthy’s vision of a healthy America, one that he outlined in his multiple appearances in September. He stopped first at the School of Epidemiology and Public Health on September 16, followed by a talk that afternoon at the School of Management. The next day he joined a panel (which included city and state health officials) at Gateway Community College to discuss antismoking efforts. That afternoon he spoke at the School of Medicine in the same Harkness Auditorium where, as Forman noted, he’d donned his first white coat.

It was at the School of Management that Murthy discussed the partnership he’s seeking with owners and operators of shopping malls. His vision starts with his belief that all things in life—from taking a walk in your neighborhood to nurturing your dreams and passions—stem from good health. “Health is the common thread that weaves through everything that we do,” he said. “If we don’t have health, we don’t have anything else.”

If all things flow from health, then it behooves all of society—not just doctors and nurses and public health experts—to take an active role in keeping people healthy. All of us have a part to play, whether we know it or not. Murthy recognizes that health is a complex issue that must take into account more than blood pressure readings and our body mass index. Good health also means access to healthful food, the ability to exercise, and freedom from poverty—in other words, addressing the inequities and disparities in our society. But Murthy remains undaunted. “We are used to thinking that complex problems require complex solutions,” he said. “That is not always the case.”

In all his presentations, he broke down large problems into manageable pieces and suggested solutions that usually involve some sort of collaboration. As Surgeon General, Murthy seeks to harness the power of eclectic partnerships among apparently disparate sectors of society—like the Indiana community in which police, educators, and public health leaders work together to tackle an epidemic of opiate abuse. “We can’t prosecute our way out of the problem,” Murthy said of drug abuse. “It is not a moral failing. It is something that requires treatment.” Other examples of the times when “we get it right” include a program in Virginia that introduces students to fresh vegetables, and another that doubles the value of food stamps at farmers’ markets, making fresh produce more accessible.

One of Murthy’s favorite solutions is walking, part of “restoring a culture of physical activity.” Just 22 minutes of walking a day, he said, greatly reduces the risk of heart disease or diabetes.

“Walking is one of the most powerful things we can do as a society to roll back the wave of chronic disease we are facing,” he said. That’s why he’s been partnering with mall owners to implement walking programs. “When it’s incredibly hot or incredibly cold, where better to walk than in a mall? You can do it with other people. It’s a social event.”

A healthy society, he believes, can be achieved through “collective will,” the force that led a band of colonists to take on the British Empire; a nation to take on racial discrimination; and medicine and science to take on the HIV epidemic. With collective will, he said, we can improve health for all. At the medical school, he called on the future physicians to join him by seeing themselves in a new role as leaders in their communities who bring together resources and experts. “That shift from being individual providers of care to being leaders who can communicate and convene—that is a cultural shift, an important one, and one that I’m hopeful we can achieve,” he said.

“What kind of country do we want to build with our collective will?” he continued. “I see a country where every man, woman, and child has a fair shot at good health. Never, ever believe that this challenge is bigger than our collective will. … Together we can translate this vision into reality.”

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