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What Does The Surgeon General Do?

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Dr. Richard Carmona

Intense debate has broken out across the blogosphere regarding the candidacy of CNN medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, for the Office of Surgeon General of the United States. Some argue that he is not qualified for the position, others say that his charisma would be a boon to public health communications. But before we draw conclusions about who’s right for the job, we need to understand what the job entails.

I asked Dr. Richard Carmona, 17th Surgeon General of the United States, to explain the roles and responsibilities of the office. You may listen to our conversation by clicking on the podcast below, or read the summary of our conversation that follows.

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Dr. Val: What is the primary role of the Surgeon General?

Dr. Carmona: It’s the Surgeon General’s responsibility to protect, promote, and advance the health safety and security of the United States. The office of the Surgeon General dates back to 1798, when President Adams passed a law to create the Marine Hospital Service. The lead physician of the service became known as the Surgeon General. The Marine Hospital Service eventually became the US Public Health Service, and the roles and responsibilities of the Surgeon General broadened to include immigration, disaster preparedness (in the case of nuclear and biological warfare), national safety, health prevention, and many complex public health issues that face our nation and the world.

Dr. Val: What sort of experience is appropriate for a candidate of the office of Surgeon General?

Dr. Carmona: A successful candidate for the office of Surgeon General should have deep and broad public health experience, especially as a public health or uniformed military officer.  The Surgeon General is given the rank of Admiral, and as such he or she will interface with other Admirals and Generals, and Army and Navy Surgeon Generals, most of whom are career officers with decades of experience in military matters. The Surgeon General must have the wisdom and experience to take on the position of an Admiral and represent our country internationally.

Dr. Val: What does the Surgeon General do on a daily basis?

Dr. Carmona: The Surgeon General is the commander of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which consists of thousands of officers in hundreds of locations around the world working anonymously to keep our nation and our world safe. The Surgeon General interfaces on a daily basis with the NIH, CDC, SAMHSA, HRSA, and all of the federally related health agencies as well as global health organizations like the World Health Organization, Pan American Health Association, and the American Public Health Association. The Surgeon General provides in-depth analysis of health policy for every cabinet minister, including the Interior, Commerce, and Homeland Security. It’s a very visible, credible, and iconic position.

Dr. Val: What’s the selection process for the office of Surgeon General?

Dr. Carmona: The Surgeon General is nominated by the President of the United States after much due diligence, and under the recommendation of his staff. The candidate is then introduced to the United States Senate. Then the Senate, if they so choose, extends the candidate the privilege of appearing before them for a Senate confirmation hearing. During the hearing they review the candidate’s credentials and ask him or her questions about anything and everything related to the public health of this nation and the world. You’re essentially put in a hot seat, and rightfully so because the Surgeon General is America’s face of public health to the world.

Dr. Val: What should Americans expect of their Surgeon General?

Dr. Carmona: The Surgeon General of the United States needs to remain a non-partisan physician. He or she should always communicate the honest, scientific truth to the American public so that they can make informed decisions about improving their health. Often, that scientific information is not the same as the policy that the President or Congress come out with, because policy is a very complicated process.

The Surgeon General has the largest medical practice in the nation (300 million), and when he or she issues reports, they actually change behavior in our country and the world. The Surgeon General is the true, honest broker of the best science for the people, offered in an a-political fashion. He or she is a patient advocate at the very highest level of government, and is expected to address the most complex health problems that face our nation. There is no more important or influential office that an American physician can hold.

Will The FDA Slow The Development Of New Diabetes Drugs?

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Amy Tenderich

Amy Tenderich

Amy Tenderich is a leading online voice for diabetes advocacy. She is author of the popular blog, Diabetes Mine, and has type 1 diabetes herself. I caught up with Amy recently to discuss her concerns about a potential slowdown in diabetes research due to an increasingly risk-adverse FDA. You may listen to our conversation here, or read my summary below.

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Dr. Val: I understand that there’s a new petition asking the FDA to better serve the needs of people with diabetes. What is your role in that?

Tenderich: The petition represents the collective online voice of the diabetes community. It was spearheaded by Kelly Close, Manny Hernandez, and myself in response to what seems to be an increasing climate of extreme risk aversion on the part of the FDA. Patients generally don’t know much about the FDA’s actions, so we bloggers are stepping in to raise awareness.

Dr. Val: What do you think is making the FDA so risk-adverse?

Tenderich: As noted by Rebecca Killion, one of the few Patient Representatives who works directly with the FDA (and also has Type 1 diabetes), we’ve seen intensified regulatory issues in the post 9-11 era due to an increasing culture of fear. In addition, this country is so litigation happy, that everyone is trying to cover themselves. The media tends to dramatize things and they come out with headlines like “diabetes drugs will kill you.” In reality, certain drugs may be very helpful to millions of people, with caution only required for those in high risk groups. We need to counteract some of this fear and exaggeration by having patients speak up. We can’t just be yanking whole classes of drugs off the market because of a risk found in a small subgroup of potential users.

Dr. Val: Can you explain how the FDA’s new safety requirements might stymie diabetes research?

Tenderich: The FDA is adding additional cardiovascular research requirements to the development of all new oral diabetes drugs. This will have a chilling effect on innovations in diabetes care. As Rebecca has pointed out, it’s pretty unreasonable to require cardiac testing in phase II and phase III drugs that have not given us any reason to believe that they may pose a cardiac risk. The additional expense and time lag caused by testing the drugs for potential cardiac side effects will slow down the whole process and makes some research cost-prohibitive for smaller companies. It takes thousands of additional study subjects to rule out the possibility of cardiac harm, which can add up to tens of millions of dollars.

Patients put a lot of faith in the FDA and they just assume that it’s looking out for their best interest – both in terms of mitigating risks and also in regard to encouraging research in the right areas. However, the FDA can be very political – with individual researchers driving their own agendas, without specific regard to patient needs. The diabetes community would definitely like to see a stronger patient voice at the FDA.

Dr. Val: So in a perfect world, what changes are you hoping that the next FDA Commisioner will make?

Tenderich: We’d like to see the new Commisioner remove excessive research hurdles to pave the way for new drugs and innovations. Of course we want the FDA to keep safety in mind and issue warnings to appropriate at-risk populations, but we don’t want them to remove patient and physician choices. We’d like to see the FDA help (rather than hinder) the development of new technologies to improve quality of life, such as continuous glucose monitors. These devices can make a huge difference in diabetes management, but insurance companies are pushing back hard on coverage for them because of the high up-front costs for a long term gain.

The purpose of the petition is to implore the FDA to set up a Diabetes Advisory Council made up of patients, researchers, and physicians “in the trenches” and actively engaged in diabetes care on a day-to-day basis. That way the decisions made by the FDA will be more in tune with the needs of real patients.

To sign the petition, please go to www.healthefda.com.

For more information, please check out Amy’s blog post at Diabetes Mine.

America’s New Export: Hospitals And Medical Schools

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Photo of Presbyterian Church

I often cringe when I see charts displaying parallel growth lines of these two variables: the number of American fast food restaurants in a given country and local obesity rates. The bad news is that our unhealthy eating habits have been exported successfully to foreign countries. The good news is that we’re going to export hospitals and health services next.

I spoke with Emme Deland, Senior Vice President of Strategy at New York Presbyterian Hospital, about the globalization of healthcare and the exportation of American health technology and expertise. You may read my summary of our discussion, or listen to the podcast here:

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Dr. Val: Where does New York Presbyterian Hospital stand in terms of the global marketplace for medical tourism?

Deland: We’ve spent the last couple of years reviewing our strategy regarding medical tourism because we want to be a part of the global healthcare economy. There is a growing market for hospital development overseas, particularly in India, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and China. The US offers the most advanced medical care in the world, and it’s only natural that other countries want to begin importing it. Whether it’s minimally invasive surgery, infertility techniques, or prenatal diagnostics and care – America is among the global leaders in health technology and services.

Dr. Val: What do these countries want to import exactly? Providers, infrastructure, physical plants, data systems, consultants who can advise on ways of doing things to reduce errors and improve quality?

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Medical Tourism: Dr. Val Chastised By The American Medical Association

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Photo of Dr. Joseph Heyman

Dr. Joseph Heyman

Alright I admit it, that was a rather provocative title. The truth is that at the end of a recent interview with Dr. Joseph Heyman, the chair of the board of trustees of the AMA, I was in fact chided for having left full time clinical practice. Dr. Heyman was rather avuncular in his tone when he stated,

You are robbing patients of the opportunity to have a good clinician like you involved in their care. I guess it reflects badly on our profession that the best and brightest are making alternative career choices – practicing clinical medicine is becoming unbearable.

No amount of protest on my part (about my volunteer work at Walter Reed) would convince Dr. Heyman that I hadn’t abandoned my profession to some degree. And it touched a chord with me too – because taking care of patients is very gratifying for me in many ways. It was with a heavy heart that I chose to become a medical journalist instead.

And so back to the interview with Dr. Heyman. We had an interesting discussion about the concept of medical tourism:

You may listen to our conversation here, or read my summary below.

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Dr. Val: Is medical tourism about people coming to the U.S. for care, or about patients leaving the U.S. to get more affordable care elsewhere?

Dr. Heyman: Historically, medical tourism has been about patients coming to the United States to get high quality care. Nowadays, people are realizing that there are wonderful places overseas where they can seek treatment. If they don’t have a very exotic illness, or require a highly specialized procedure, they can get appropriate care overseas. Hip replacements are a good example of a standard procedure that can be performed without too much difficulty. It wouldn’t be as much of a draw for patients who need hip replacements to come to the U.S. Read more »

Patients Aren’t Looking At Hospital Quality Data – But They Should Be

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Photo of Dr. Michael Shabt

Dr. Michael Shabot

I recently interviewed Dr. Michael Shabot, Memorial Hermann Hospital System’s Chief Medical Officer, about how his hospital is taking steps to improve patient safety and healthcare quality. His hospital was awarded the 2008 National Health System Patient Safety Leadership Award at a ceremony at the National Press Club.

You may listen to your 20-minute interview here, or read my summary of it below.

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Dr. Val: Tell me about what Memorial Hermann has been doing in the area of hospital quality and safety.

Dr. Shabot: We operate Memorial Hermann Healthcare System on the premise that all patients, visitors, and staff will have an absolutely safe environment. In fact, six of our hospitals have gone a year without a single case of hospital-acquired blood stream infections, or ventilator-associated pneumonia.

Larry Kellner, the CEO of Continental Airlines, can travel on any one of his airplanes without checking on the credentials of the pilots. But would you advise a family member to go to a hospital without checking its credentials or being under the care of a physician whom you know and trust? I wouldn’t.

Every single one of our hospital employees has gone through our “cultural transformation” training. They are taught new ways of doing their current jobs – based on safety training with a proven track record in the aircraft and nuclear energy industries. We also feature employees who have “good catches.” Last month’s “good catch” employee found a medication that was packaged incorrectly from the vendor. It was in the correct bin of our computerized dispensing system, the outer package was correct, but the bottle inside contained a different dose. And this medicine was going to be given to a tiny baby in our neonatal ICU. That incorrect dose could have caused terrible harm, but thanks to the alert nurse – we caught the error.

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