Our collective will, says surgeon general, can give “every man, woman, and child a fair shot at good health”
For many of us, the shopping mall symbolizes what’s wrong with society‒a temple to consumerism, a sterile box of concrete and glass that entices us to spend our money. Others see 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.
Vivek H. Murthy, M.D. ’03, M.B.A. ’03, the nation’s 19th surgeon general, sees a partner in his quest for a healthy nation.
Such a seemingly offbeat collaboration is key to Murthy’s vision of a healthy America, one that he outlined in multiple appearances on the Yale campus and in New Haven over two days in September. He came at the invitation of Howard Forman, M.D., M.B.A., a mentor since Murthy’s student days at Yale. “He agreed immediately,” said Forman, professor of diagnostic radiology, economics, and public health, and director of the M.D./M.B.A. Program. “It was just a matter of finding the time.”
Murthy’s first appearance was at the School of Epidemiology and Public Health on Sept. 16, followed by a talk that afternoon at the School of Management. The next day he joined in a panel (which included city and state health officials) at Gateway Community College to discuss anti-smoking efforts. That afternoon he spoke at the School of Medicine, in the Harkness Auditorium where, as Forman noted, he’d first donned his 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 good 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 healthy 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 talks, he broke down big problems into manageable pieces and solutions that usually involved 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 where law enforcement, 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, adding that earlier that week in Las Vegas he had met young parents who walk 1.7 miles each way to bring their children to school. 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.”
“I am in awe,” said one student in Harkness Auditorium, as she lined up for a selfie with Murthy after his talk. “It makes you want to do something,” said Roshan Sharma, M.B.A., a researcher in medical oncology. Said Dipankan Bhattacharya, an M.D./Ph.D. student who arrived two hours early to be sure to get a seat, “I loved it. I want to be him some day.” “I really enjoyed how he made it so relatable,” said first-year medical student Eric Chen. “I liked how he talked about how physicians can get involved in the community,” said fellow first-year Bonnie Hawkins.
The enthusiasm spread beyond the young students starting their careers. Also in the audience, which filled all the seats and even the aisles in the auditorium, was Christine Walsh, M.D. ’73, a former president of the Association of Yale Alumni in Medicine, who said, “He brings it down to a very personal level. He makes you feel that you have a personal responsibility to get things done. He has a very warm affect that makes you feel connected to him.”