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Administration Censors Statements On Controversial Scientific Issues

A New York Times Magazine story published on the newspaper’s website on Wednesday details the complicated history of screening for prostate cancer in the U.S. and revisits the related story of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force meeting that was abruptly cancelled for political reasons on November 1, 2010, the day before the midterm Congressional elections. I was interviewed several times for this story, starting shortly after my resignation from my position at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, where for 4 years I had supported the USPSTF’s scientific activities on a wide range of topics.

I commend science journalists Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer for their tireless reporting efforts and dogged persistence in pursuing the real reason for the meeting’s cancellation, despite repeated and vigorous denials of senior government officials. Former USPSTF Chairman Ned Calonge confirms in the Times story that politics played a role: “In November 2010, just before midterm elections, the task force was again set to review its [prostate screening] recommendation when Calonge canceled the meeting. He says that word leaked out that if the November meeting was held, it could jeopardize the task force’s financing.” It’s true that several members of Congress had threatened to cut off funding for the Task Force after it recommended against routine mammography for women in their 40s. To the best of my knowledge, however, the order to cancel the meeting came directly from the White House, not Congress. And according to my superiors at the time, Dr. Calonge had no choice in the matter. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Common Sense Family Doctor*

Obesity, Hypocrisy, And The Surgeon General


They gathered around the figure who was lying with face toward the ground.  Holding stones, they demanded justice – that the sin of this person be exposed for what it is: inferiority.  Her sin had been exposed for all to see and the righteous rage of those who were pointing fingers and holding stones was pounding at her on the inside, just as the stones would soon pound her on the outside.

“Her BMI is over 30!  It may even be over 40!” one of them cried out.  The others responded to this with a howl.

“How can she be fit for leading the country’s health if she can’t even fit into her pants?!” another asked, causing raucous laughter to echo from the crowd.

Nearby, a news reporter spoke into a camera: “People are questioning her fitness for surgeon general, as she obviously is overweight.  The president had initially hoped the popular TV doctor would take the job, but fell back on Dr. Benjamin as a substitute.  Clearly a president, who himself is a closet cigarette smoker, doesn’t see the fact that she is overweight as a disqualifying factor.  These people, and many others around the country, disagree with that assessment.”


Forty years ago, people would also have cried out about this nomination.  They would have said that a woman shouldn’t be in charge of the nation’s health, or that a black person doesn’t have the wherewithal to manage such a big task.  Times have changed, as her nomination shows – nobody is talking about these facts that have nothing to do with her ability to do this job.    We have truly progressed.

Sort of.

This objection, of course, is that her weight shows that either she doesn’t understand what is causing her obesity, or that she doesn’t have the moral fortitude to successfully fight it.  Either way, she’s disqualified for the job.  Right?  It’s a sign of weakness to be overweight, and we certainly don’t need someone with a personal weakness to be in a leadership position!


It is clear that some view the overweight (which, by the way, constitute 2/3 of our adult population) as being emotionally weak and somehow inferior to everyone else.  After all, study after study has shown that the way to beat obesity is simple: eat less and exercise more.  It’s simple; and those who don’t do it are weak, lazy, dumb, or just plain pathetic.

It angers me to hear these suggestions.  Racist and sexist people put down others because of the fact that they are different than themselves.  But the moral judgment against the overweight and obese is not meant to be a judgment against something inherent in the other person; it is a judgment against their character, their choices, and their weaknesses.  The implication is that they are somehow either smarter, stronger, or just plain better than the overweight.  The implication is that the other is weak and they are not.

There is a word for this attitude: hypocrisy.  A bigot is a person who hates those who are different; a hypocrite is one that hates others for something they themself have, but choose to ignore.  Both mistakenly act as if they have the moral high-ground.  Both disqualify themself from any argument based on morality.

Healthcare exists because of human weakness.  We all are weak in various ways, and we all will eventually die when one of our weaknesses overcomes us.  Obesity exists because of human weakness – either the genetic or biological miscalibration of the person’s metabolism, or the inability of that person to act in ways that are in their own best interest.

I have to say that I probably fall in the latter category, as my lack of desire to exercise and my exuberant desire to eat rich foods make it so I have struggled with my weight for years.  Somehow the prescription: eat less and exercise more, is not very helpful for me.  Yes, it is simple; but it is not easy.  Having others explain it to me at this point is not only unhelpful, it is insulting.  Of course I know that my weight is a problem!  Of course I know I should exercise more and avoid that cookie dough in the refrigerator!

To successfully fight the battle against obesity in our country, we have to stop the condescending finger-pointing and instead ask the question: why is it that we humans don’t always act in our self-interest?  Why do smokers smoke?  Why do alcoholics drink?  Why don’t people take their medications, eat enough vegetables, or go for walks instead of watching The Biggest Loser on TV?  This seeming self-destruct switch is, to some degree or another, present (in my opinion) in everyone.  It is the same drama with different actors and props.  We all sell our birthright for some soup at times.  We all go the route of easy self-indulgence rather than personal discipline.

Does that mean we are all weak?  Yes, in fact, it does.  My admission of my weakness has actually made it easier to have frank discussions with patients about their own personal struggles – be they weight, smoking, or other self-destructive behaviors.  They listen to me because I don’t insult them with statements of the obvious.  If it was easy to lose weight, don’t you think we’d have a little less than 2/3 of the population being obese?  Does 2/3 of the people remain overweight because they want to be that way?  No, the problem is not that simple; and suggesting otherwise won’t do much to deal with our national problem.

Dr. Benjamin has impressive credentials.  She is a practicing primary care physician who cares for the poor.  She’s not some subspecialist TV personality; she’s a doctor who has spent a lot of time face to face with the neediest people in our system.  She doesn’t just know about the poor and needy, she knows them.  She’s one of us; and her weight does nothing to lessen that – for me it actually makes her more relevant, not less.

So put down your stones, people.  We are all weak.  Having someone who understands the real struggle of the overweight may actually give us a better chance to successfully fight it.  And if some of you still hold stones, let me rephrase a famous statement: The person without personal weakness can throw the first stone.

*This blog post was originally published at Musings of a Distractible Mind*

Dr. George Lundberg: A Fine Choice For Surgeon General

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.

The “Dark Horse” Of HHS: Place Your Bets

Merrill Goozner has been speculating about who will be nominated as the new Secretary of HHS. He reviewed his most likely candidates (David Cutler or David Blumenthal), and threw in a “dark horse” potential nominee: Ken Thorpe (whom I’ve interviewed several times on this blog and spent time with during Obama’s inauguration ceremony).

Tommy Thompson told me that the nominee is likely to be a current or former democratic governor (such as Kathleen Sebelius or Howard Dean).

But I’ve been pondering the “long shot” question and think that Goozner may have missed a more obvious choice – someone who works with Ken Thorpe at the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease: former Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona.

Here are the 10 reasons why Richard Carmona would be a smart choice for Secretary of HHS (in random order):

1.    He was confirmed by the senate as Surgeon General in 2002 and lived under their scrutiny during his term of service, meaning he has no hidden secrets, tax or nanny problems likely to embarrass Obama and could be confirmed rapidly – perhaps in under a week.
2.    He has forged extensive good relationships with both parties over the course of his tenure as Surgeon General and is known internationally.
3.    He has been the CEO of a large, public health system (including hospitals, Medicare and Medicaid clinics, nursing homes, and emergency medical systems in Arizona).
4.    He has been a paramedic, nurse, and physician and understands the healthcare system from the inside out.
5.    He has a track record of leadership in prevention, preparedness, health disparities, health literacy, global health and health diplomacy. He has worked on both sides of the aisle, including assisting Senator Kennedy with issues of disability and socio-economic determinants of health.
6.    He is Hispanic, which adds additional diversity to the Obama leadership team.
7.    He has experience managing local, state and federal health programs, including significant experience in immigration and border health issues.
8.    He demonstrated competency and leadership as manager of the US Public Health Service of over 6000 uniformed public health officers both nationally and internationally.
9.    He has extensive military experience, and is a combat-decorated Vietnam veteran. He maintains a strong relationship with military surgeons general and the department of defense.
10.    The fact that he is a political independent might actually provide a middle ground for parties with differing agendas in health reform.

Is point number 10 a deal breaker? It may be, but Obama could look farther and do much worse. And while the clock is ticking and credibility is paramount (as Maggie Mahar wrote, “Reform needs to be overseen by someone who is perceived as being above suspicion—purer than Caesar’s wife”) I think the Obama/Biden team needs to take a closer look at Dr. Carmona. He’s actually the most experienced, low risk candidate under discussion – and could truly hit the ground running at HHS. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a physician who is also a health policy expert with advanced managerial experience at the head of the healthcare reform table?

What Does The Surgeon General Do?

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.

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