Rumor has it that Sanjay Gupta is no longer in the running for the office of Surgeon General. Many people had voiced their concerns about his potential nomination (including Paul Krugman, Maggie Mahar, Gary Schwitzer, Dr. David Gorski, and myself) and it looks as if his lack of experience or training in matters of public health, along with a history of industry ties has put the kabosh on his nomination.
So who will be our next Surgeon General? It’s hard to say, but a petition is circulating on behalf of Dr. George Lundberg – a fine nominee for the position in my opinion. Let me explain why.
A review of Dr. Lundberg’s curriculum vitae easily establishes his professional qualifications for the position. Not only has he been one of the longest standing Editors-In-Chief of all the American Medical Association journals (including JAMA), and the founder of the world’s first open-access, peer reviewed online medical journal (Medscape Journal of Medicine) but has served in an advisory capacity to everyone from the World Health Organization, to AHRQ, the Joint Commission, Harvard’s School of Public Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration and the Surgeon General of the US Navy. He is also a prolific and influential writer, having authored 149 peer-reviewed articles, 204 editorials, and 39 books or book chapters. Dr. Lundberg has a large and devoted national and international audience and is highly esteemed by all who know him.
Dr. Lundberg has provided editorial leadership since the mid 1980s in American healthcare reform, campaign against tobacco, prevention of nuclear war, prevention and treatment of alcoholism and other drug dependencies, prevention of violence, changing physician behavior, patient safety, racial
disparities in medical care, health literacy, and the ethics of medical publishing and continuing medical education.
However, what may not be obvious from Dr. Lundberg’s list of extraordinary accomplishments, is his extraordinary character and wisdom. I had the privilege of working with George at the Medscape Journal of Medicine and reported directly to him. From this vantage point I was able to to observe his impartiality, his commitment to honesty and integrity, and his ability to walk the line between inclusivity of opinion and exclusivity of falsehoods. George is a defender of science, a welcomer of ideas, and an impartial judge of content. He can capture an audience, nurture imagination, and see through deception. George is exactly the kind of person we need as Surgeon General – he can be relied upon to discern truth, and maintain his faithfulness to it under political or industry pressure.
But best of all, George understands the central role of trust in healthcare. In his recent book, Severed Trust, George analyzes the policy decisions that have shaped our current healthcare system, and laments their inadvertent collateral damage: the injury to the sacred trust between physicians and patients.
If we want to come together as a nation to restore hope and trust in America – and we want to create an equitable healthcare system that leaves none behind, restores science to its rightful place, and heals the wounds endured by both providers and patients, then we need a Surgeon General like George Lundberg to help us.
I can only hope that his candidacy will be given the full consideration it deserves.
I was a little surprised by a recent reader comment suggesting that pharmaceutical companies are no different than tobacco manufacturers. While I am strongly opposed to misleading pharmaceutical marketing tactics, the bottom line is that most drugs have a legitimate therapeutic value. Tobacco, on the other hand, is a known carcinogen with no medical value that I can think of. This comparison, however, brought into focus a common underlying assumption: that for-profit companies are inherently less ethical than non-profit and academic centers.
I’d like to question the tendency to absolve academic centers of any possible wrongdoing on the basis of their educational reputation or non-profit status. Of course, financial gain is not the only motivator behind endeavors, initiatives, and behaviors – though it may be the easiest to measure.
As a medical student I witnessed a sad example of academic misbehavior. Senior residents in the department of plastic surgery were performing liposuction procedures after hours for cash. When a patient experienced an infectious complication from a thigh liposuction procedure, an investigation ensued. The residents claimed to be putting the cash into the residency fund, to be used to support travel, lodging and participation in annual assemblies – therefore exonerating themselves of wrong-doing.
It is unclear if the department chair was fully aware of what the residents were up to, though he was reprimanded, terminated, and ended up teaching at another institution. The plastic surgery department lost its accreditation, and all of the residents had to finish their training elsewhere. As for me, I lost my mentor (the department chair) and ended up not pursuing a career in surgery. There certainly was a lot of fall out from that debacle on all sides.
A case of academic double standards was highlighted recently by Dr. George Lundberg in a Medscape editorial where journal editors claimed that continuing medical education (CME) courses should never be sponsored by for-profit companies. Meanwhile the journal accepted advertising from these same companies:
…The JAMA editors who wrote in 2008: “…providers of continuing medical education courses should not condone or tolerate for-profit companies…providing funding or sponsorship for medical education programs….” This is from a publication that, for more than 100 years, has been supported primarily by advertising revenue, mostly pharmaceutical. The editors will say “yes, but we follow rules to prevent bias or improper influence.” True. So do we, a for-profit company, follow rules that prevent bias and improper influence.
On the positive side, there are many examples of for-profit companies who cultivate a culture of environmental responsibility and charity – Ben & Jerry’s, SC Johnson, and Patagonia come to mind. And let’s not forget the foundations created by Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet and many others thanks to overflow from for-profit endeavors.
In the end, conflicts of interest, hidden agendas, and secret quid pro quos are a matter of individual character and corporate culture. The people who build a company (or a country) have more to do with its behaviors and processes than the simple label “for profit” or “non profit” or any assumptions made at such a superficial level.
We are all biased in many ways, both consciously and unconsciously. The best we can do is to strive for transparency. It may be best to judge each entity and/or individual by their degree of transparency rather than profit status, academic status, or subject matter expertise. For-profit companies can be highly ethical, and academic centers can be rife with undisclosed conflicts and questionable behaviors.
Healthcare organizations should not avoid or incur scrutiny based on their profit status alone. Bias comes in many forms – and the best we can do is work for the good of others in full knowledge of the influences around us.