Sanjay Gupta as Surgeon General? Not so fast.

Sguptalarge150x150This week’s news that Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s medical correspondent, is being considered for the office of
Surgeon General by President-elect Obama came as quite a shock to me.  I’ve met and interviewed 3 of the
recent Surgeons General over the past few years. Of course, I like
Sanjay Gupta as a reporter. He’s a fine communicator and does a good
job covering subjects for a consumer audience. But I don’t think he has
the gravitas or appropriate experience for the role of Surgeon General
of the United States.

I spoke with one source close to the nomination proceedings, and he
said that most senior people were secretly disappointed with the
choice. My source requested that I not reveal his name.

If Sanjay Gupta is confirmed as Surgeon General he will
achieve the immediate rank of admiral, even though he has no previous
military or public health experience whatsoever. It will be difficult
for Gupta to be taken seriously by peers at the Pentagon and State
Department. The office of Surgeon General is a very important position
given only to the most senior and experienced medical professionals
with decades of achievements in their fields. Gupta is a good reporter,
he should consider a role in public relations for the U.S. government,
not the office of Surgeon General.

When the Bush administration chose an inexperienced person, Mike
Brown, to head FEMA – it was a disaster. I hope that the Obama
administration doesn’t make a similar mistake with Gupta. However, a
nomination is not a confirmation – Gupta still has to be approved by
Senator Kennedy’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee
before taking the office of Surgeon General. Unfortunately, it’s
possible that the committee will feel pressured to confirm Gupta to
maintain a good relationship with the new administration, rather than
to vote their conscience. But I can tell you that many people are not
pleased with this nomination, and feel that there are more appropriate
choices that are being overlooked.

It will be interesting to see how far this nomination goes, and if
there will be an outcry from the military and medical community over
Sanjay Gupta’s apparent nomination.

Val Jones, M.D., is the President and CEO of Better Health, LLC. Most
recently she was the Senior Medical Director of Revolution Health, a
consumer health portal with over 120 million page views per month in
its network. Prior to her work with Revolution Health, Dr. Jones served
as the founding editor of Clinical Nutrition & Obesity, a
peer-reviewed e-section of the online Medscape medical journal. She currently blogs at Get Better Health, where this post first appeared.

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15 replies »

  1. The pending nomination of Dr. Sanjay Gupta, as Surgeon General portends bad health policy and poor prospects for Senator Dashel’s healthcare reform efforts on behalf of all Americans.
    Dr. Gupta has very little background in public health, preventive medicine or administration.
    He has openly opposed progressive health reform, going so far as to cite false information to denigrate single payer systems.
    He co-hosts Turner Private Networks’ monthly show “Accent Health,” which airs in doctors’ offices around the country and which includes targeted ads from the drug companies.
    In the 2008 election campaign, his reporting on John McCain’s health proposals was misleading and implicitly positive, giving undeserved credence to McCain’s claims that buying private health insurance on the open market is a financially viable option for most Americans.
    This success of the new Surgeon General depends on neither nominating a beauty contest winner nor having an appealing media presence. Healthcare is a matter of physical and financial life and/or death for millions of Americans.
    Dr. Gupta is a mistake the Obama administration must not make.

  2. Two comments:
    1. When was the last time that the surgeon general was really relevant in the US health care system? I would say Koop and that is going back a ways now.
    2. The most practical issue is what experience does Gupta have running an agency with over several thousand public health professionals or with Washington politics?
    Maybe Gupta would be able to use his experience in the media as a way to put some relevance back to the position of Surgeon General but my bet is that it is more likely he would likely be a disappointing appointee who would take too long to grasp exactly what his agency does and ways to improve performance/relevance.

  3. Just noticed that, while Dr. Val voices concerns about Dr. Gupta’s celebrity status and lack of gravitas, the first thing anyone notices about her own blog page ( is her links to “celebrity interviews.” Joan Lunden and Debbie Mazar top the list, but our most recent Surgeon General – Richard Carmona – is at the very bottom of the list. Gravitas valued over celebrity? Hardly.

  4. C. Everett Koop, David Satcher, and Richard Carmona were all given the immediate rank of vice admiral, and it caused no problem whatsoever in the Pentagon or the State Department.

  5. I can understand how Obama is wanting to bring about Change…this is an example, I believe, of doing something unorthodox. Now, if Dr. Gupta does take the position of SG, it can be either hit or miss; we will not know until we see how his actions affect the current health care system.
    All I can do now, is decided whether his past experiences justify his nomination for SG. (Check Out Emory’s Site and run a Bio search on him to find out more).

  6. What commitment has Dr. Gupta demonstrated to the medical care of the economically disadvantaged? The American people have spoken, in choosing Obama: we want to see a commitment to an inclusive health care system which puts the health of every individual above company profits. I believe that this is something which many in both parties — Dem and Republican — care about. Everybody needs a compassionate system. What in Gupta’s past demonstrates a commitment to this? In addition, has anyone seen the Gupta – Moore debates on Youtube? I say, let’s find a different person. There are too many highly qualified people out there who could do the job.

  7. I think it’s a great choice in asking Dr. Gupta to accept this position. He’s a well respected physician, already has a handle on speaking to the public, and does have some political chops in his background, something very few previous surgeon general’s have had. So he’s popular; popularity has never meant someone wasn’t good or qualified.

  8. The director of public health for Los Angeles County (Jonathan Fielding MD) or his New York City counterpart would be far better candidates for Surgeon General. Both have experience running large organizations and noteworthy accomplishments, along with excellent PR skills.

  9. Dear Dr VAL JONES, MD,
    You sound so authoritative but you don’t get your facts right. I am extremely curious what motivates you against Dr Gupta’s nomination besides the inaccuracies of your knowledge of the role of the Surgeon General and the career history of Dr Gupta.
    I am entirely enthusiastic about having Dr Sanjay Gupta as our Surgeon General. At least, he has had battle field operation experience which I doubt any previous Surgeon General had.

  10. I agree with Lew–our surgeon general needs to capture the attention of the public (in a positive way), and further the public health agenda, which, if reports are accurate, should address some of Cynic’s concerns regarding emphasis on treating chronic disease. Former SG Richard Carmona was a sharp SG very interested in chronic disease mgt, but ran afoul of Bush politics and the right wing by talking about real medical issues.
    Sanjay Gupta is capable, but would have to realize it would not be an extended Oprah gig. SG, SG has a certain symmetry to it.
    I agree that it is a bit bizarre and non-traditional, but this is the time to take chances.

  11. Gupta is a completely inappropriate choice. As a neurosurgeon, his field is about as specialized as it gets. He has no knowledge of using policy to shape public health and zero public health experience. Behind the scenes, the physician boards and e-mails are buzzing, and no one I’ve heard from is happy…

  12. The bulk of health care dollars in the US are spent on people with chronic conditions and it would make far more sense to find someone with a background in family practice or internal medicine vs neurology.
    Then again we just elected our first National spokes-model President (yes I voted for him) so it makes perfect sense that he would pick someone from the Media.

  13. In my view, Gupta is an unusual but sound pick. The primary role of the SG is as a bully pulpit on behalf of the health of the public. Prior SGs have been: 1) experienced docs from PH or clinical medicine who have effectively leveraged the position; 2) docs with the same background who have not; 3) Hacks and over-their-heads. My prediction is his background and experience would prepare him well for the role.
    A more interesting question is whether he would serve as an telegenic spokesman for the Obama Health Reform agenda vs. being an advocate for the public health community (which always gets short shrift when compared to medical care) vs. something else.

  14. This is a little inaccurate. The surgeon general does not automatically become an admiral in the Navy. They are given the rank of vice admiral in what is called the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. The corps is a little known branch of the armed forces that is strictly for commissioned officers with jobs that are all non-combat (You thought there were five branches of the armed services? There are actually seven!).
    Perhaps the confusion arises because the PHSCC officers wear the uniforms of the navy, and their ranks bear the same names as those of the navy, but they are separate services, and no one in the PHSCC gets to pilot any ships. But as for being taken seriously at the Pentagon or Foggy Bottom? Well, that’s what the officers of the PHSCC are there for, so I see no reason why Gupta, a respected brain surgeon, would carry any more or less weight than any of his predecessors. Indeed, given his celebrity status, it seems people would be more likely to listen.
    Also, the idea that surgeon generals typically are “the most senior and experienced medical professionals with decades of achievements in their fields” is not an absolute, either. In 1990, Dr. Antonia Novello was named surgeon general at the ripe old age of 45. She was, however, a career officer in the PHSCC, and rose through the ranks to the top job.
    The acting surgeon general who replaced her for three months in 1993, Robert Whitney, was a doctor of veterinary medicine, who served in the PHSCC as part of its laboratory animal detachment. In other words, for a brief time, our surgeon general was a veterinarian!
    Dr. Gupta, while serving as a war correspondent for CNN in Iraq, performed five emergency brain surgeries in the field. I don’t know if that counts for military experience, but anyone at the Pentagon who overlooks it ought to be reminded — though I expect Dr. Gupta would be too polite to do so.
    Frankly, it sounds like Dr. Jones’ anonymous source has a case of the sour grapes, resentful at getting passed over by someone with more star power, or at least, is close to people who are.

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