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Dr Murthy spells out his plans to improve America's health

February 05, 2014 11:54 IST

'My grandfather was a poor farmer who fought for democracy and freedom in India and who could have never dreamed that his grandson would have the opportunity to sit before you today and be considered for the position of Surgeon General,' Dr Murthy told a US Senate Committee

Dr Vivek Hallegere Murthy, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the position of United States Surgeon General, may become the first Indian American to take over the prestigious position.

If confirmed, the 36-year-old will also become the youngest person in history to occupy the position dubbed as ‘America’s Doctor’.

Appearing before a Senate Committee as part of his confirmation process recently, Dr Murthy spelled out his priorities, spoke of his immigrant roots and recalled his experience in India in training young women to be health care educators and leaders.

Murthy, while testifying before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labour and Pensions, said, “I believe the future of public health demands that we remove the walls separating our health delivery systems and our communities and ensure that all institutions in society play a role in prevention and health promotion”.

“If given the opportunity to serve as Surgeon General,” he said, “I would build strong partnerships between our delivery systems and faith-based groups, local businesses, and other stakeholders in our community in order to do three things”.

Murthy, who resides in Boston, Massachusetts, is an attending physician at Brigham Women’s Hospital and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

He said this would entail providing the public with scientifically-based information on issues such as obesity, diet, physical activity, and tobacco cessation, implement community-driven public health initiatives based on scientific evidence and cultural norms, and assess the efficacy of current and new strategies in collaboration with the research community.

Speaking at a packed committee hearing room filled with scores of Indian American physicians, family and friends, in addition to senior officials of the Obama administration working on healthcare issues, Murthy declared that he believed America’s “strength has always come from its people -- they are and will always be our most valuable resource”.

Thus, he argued, “Improving the health of our people means strengthening the nation,” and reiterated, “If given the opportunity and honour to serve as America’s Surgeon General, this will be my highest priority”.

At the outset of his testimony, Murthy introduced his family to the Committee members -- his mother Myetraie Murthy, his father, Dr Hallegere Murthy -- a primary care physician practicing in Miami, Florida, and his sister, Dr Rashmi Murthy, also a physician.

He said, “Our family, like so many before us, has been fortunate to live the American Dream,” and noted, “I am the son of immigrant parents who came to this country with little money and few possessions but with a commitment to work hard and build a better life for their children”.

Murthy informed the US lawmakers that “my grandfather was a poor farmer who fought for democracy and freedom in India and who could have never dreamed that his grandson would have the opportunity to sit before you today and be considered for the position of Surgeon General”.

He spoke emotionally of how “from an early age, my parents instilled in me the core values of service, education, and health,” and recalled that “I spent many weekends helping in my father’s medical clinic, and it was there that I came to see what medicine could be like in its best moments -- an opportunity for a doctor and patient to come together and create a mutually therapeutic bond”.

‘These early experiences inspired my own life’s work,’ he added.

Murthy, who received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard, and his medical and master’s in business administration degrees from Yale University, said, “Over the course of my career, I have been associated with some of our nation’s finest universities and hospitals during my time at Harvard, Yale and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, initially as a student of biochemistry, management, and medicine, and later as a physician and educator”.

He said, “As a public health educator, I created HIV/AIDS education programs for tens of thousands of youth through an organisation I co-founded called VISIONS,” and recalled his India experience wherein he helped train young women to be health care educators and leaders.

Murthy said, “I built a rural community health partnership in India called Swasthya to train young women to be health care educators and leaders. Through these experiences, I learned how to conceive and execute community-wide health projects that respected cultural and geographic differences”.

“As an organisational leader,” he added, “I co-founded a national medical organisation, Doctors for America, comprising thousands of physicians in all 50 states, in order to strengthen dialogue between physicians, patients, policymakers about pressing health matters. In this capacity, I managed thousands of inspiring volunteers and brought together diverse stakeholders for a common goal of improving health”.

Continuing to make a strong pitch for his confirmation by the Committee, which would make his confirmation by the full Senate a cake-walk, Murthy said, “As a national leader in prevention, I have served on the Advisory Group to the National Prevention Council and helped inform and share the nation’s first National Prevention Strategy”.

Pointing out that in addition to a physician, researcher, teacher and public health educator, he was an entrepreneur too, Murthy said, “As an entrepreneur and innovator, I co-founded and helped build a successful software technology company, TrialNetworks, which has harnessed the power of information technology to improve research collaboration and the efficiency of clinical trials around the world”.

He declared, “These foundational experiences have given me the opportunity to view health through a variety of lenses and have grounded me in science, research, medicine, and public health”.

Senator Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Committee said, in introducing Murthy to the members of the Committee and the public, “Despite the Herculean efforts of previous Surgeons General, we still have many challenges to address to improve the health of our nation. So we are very fortunate to have a nominee of Dr Vivek Murthy’s caliber -- he is an extraordinary physician, and exceptionally well-qualified to lead our national prevention and wellness efforts”.

Harkin said, “In fact, Dr Murthy’s colleagues, who know him best, have sent me compelling letters of support that testify to his talents, leadership, and character,’ and added that ‘in addition to this professional leadership, his colleagues describe his ‘unsurpassed’ level of ‘compassion, personal integrity and energy’ for promoting health and wellness initiatives in the US and abroad”.

“Given Dr Murthy’s extraordinary medical and public health accomplishments, it is no surprise that his colleagues hold him in such high esteem,” he added.

Harkin said he was most ‘impressed’ by Murthy’s “extensive experience in clinical care, his achievements in the field of public health, and his obvious passion for public service”.

“It is clear that Dr Murthy is an exemplary candidate to serve as Surgeon General of the United States,” he said, and added that should Murthy be confirmed, “his calm demeanor, his excellent ability to communicate with Americans from all backgrounds, and his medical and public health expertise will be invaluable assets during the times that Americans are most concerned about their health and safety”.

Aziz Haniffa In Washington, DC