Health Service Marks Banner Year Without a Surgeon General

Dr. Vivek Murthy was sworn in as surgeon general Thursday after an 18-month leadership void. Dr. Vivek Murthy was sworn in as surgeon general Thursday after an 18-month leadership void. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

When Dr. Vivek Murthy was sworn in as the 19th surgeon general on Thursday, his team at the U.S. Public Health Service was doubtless relieved, but they had hardly been biding their time.

For the past 18 months, the office and its 6,800-member commissioned corps had been led on an acting basis by Rear Adm. Boris Lushniak, who’d been deputy surgeon general since 2010. He and his staff guided the corps through the Ebola outbreak and addressed myriad public health crises, including childhood obesity, skin cancer and tobacco use.

“We’ve had an amazing year, “Lt. Cmdr. Kate Migliaccio, the service’s senior public information officer, told Government Executive.

Far from being frozen under an acting leader, her office sent more than 140 officers to West Africa to help stem the Ebola outbreak, staffing a 25-bed, state-of-the-art hospital for health care workers who may be infected with the virus, said Migliaccio, who spent 21 days in Liberia.

In September, the Public Health Service announced it was sending the specialized team to Africa to help the Defense Department manage care for medical workers and increase local capacity to fight Ebola. “The dedicated officers have the skills to make a significant impact in one of the international community’s most devastating public health emergencies,” Lushniak said. Public Health Service teams joined staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

That same month Lushniak joined with Shellie Pfohl, executive director of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, to help coordinate a 20-agency effort spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama to reduce childhood obesity.

In July, Migliaccio added, “we released the first-ever call to action on skin cancer,” noting that Lushniak is a board-certified dermatologist and preventive specialist who had worked under the previous Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin, who resigned July 16, 2013.

Lushniak teamed with Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health at the Health and Human Services Department, to spread the message that “tanned skin is damaged skin.” With skin cancers such as melanoma on the rise, unlike many other types of cancer, the Public Health Service outlined practical prevention steps such as using protective gear, clothing and sunscreen.

In January, Lushniak joined CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden and then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to mark the 50th anniversary of Surgeon General Luther Terry’s report on the dangers of smoking—perhaps the high-water mark of the office’s history.

During a ceremony that included family of the late Terry, Lushniak said, “Over the decades since 1964, no single issue has engaged the surgeons general more than smoking. Since 1964, 31 surgeon general reports have added to our understanding of the devastating health and financial burdens caused by tobacco use.”

The office used the opportunity to release a new report on smoking, which Lushniak described as “the result of over five years of hard work by 85 contributing authors and 120 expert reviewers.” He said “the public health community and all of our partners rededicate ourselves to new goals pointing us in the same direction—12 percent smoking rates in 2020, 10 percent in 10 years, or a smoke-free generation in a generation.”   

The new top doc, Murthy, who takes the additional new title of a vice admiral in the Public Health Service’s commissioned corps, is an internist from Boston. He founded the nonprofit Doctors for America, which works to expand access to health care around the country.

A Senate vote on his nomination was delayed for 13 months, until December, after the National Rifle Association objected to his past characterization of guns as a health care issue. Murthy has said he does not intend to use the surgeon general's office as a “bully pulpit for gun control.”

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