VICE ADMIRAL Jerome M. Adams, MD, MPH, first earned the title of doctor at Indiana University School of Medicine, where he was a member of our Class of 2002 and later became an assistant professor of clinical anesthesia.
In 2017, Adams became the nation’s 20th Surgeon General and is sometimes referred to as “the nation’s doctor.” Nearly two years into the job, Adams advises Congress on public health issues, appears on television news shows to discuss matters such as the opioid crisis and crisscrosses the country promoting the benefits of vaccinations.
We spoke to Adams about being Surgeon General. These are a few highlights of the conversation.
What are your thoughts on being Surgeon General?
I am blessed to be in this role. In the last 200 years, there have only been 20 confirmed United States surgeons general. There have been twice as many presidents in that same time as there have been United States surgeons general. It is a very unique opportunity. It is an opportunity to have some leverage that most other folks don’t have to move health in this country. I just try to get up every day and think how I can use this unique role and this unique opportunity to make the United States a healthier, safer place.
One of the areas you’ve been trying to address is vaccinations, even talking to Google and Facebook about helping good information rise to the top. Why aren’t people getting vaccinated? And what can you do to promote it?
It’s important to state very loudly that vaccinations are proven to save lives, to protect our children and are one of our greatest public health achievements in U.S. history. It’s very important for people to understand and we can’t say it enough…but I also think we need to remember that all parents, whether they believe in vaccinations or not, just want what they believe to be best for their children. So, it’s really important that we as health advocates—particularly as physicians—continue to educate people about the science behind vaccinations and the importance of their loved ones being protected. That starts with being compassionate listeners, with not prejudging people, but taking the time to answer their questions.
Another problem you’re facing—as you did as Indiana health commissioner—is the opioid crisis. What are the keys to making progress?
One of the keys, I think, is that we’ve got to stop pointing fingers at everyone else and really all look at ourselves and say what can we do to help respond to the opioid epidemic. To that end…I’ve really focused on three areas. (See breakout) →
As an anesthesiologist, you have perspective on pain medications. Is that helpful?
To have someone in the role of Surgeon General who has been trained in acute and chronic pain management, who has been trained in alternatives to opioids and understands what fentanyl is because I gave it to patients every day of my life for over a decade, and understands what naloxone is and how people are going to respond to it, is extremely valuable. I’m trying to use knowledge I gained by being both a resident and a faculty member in anesthesia at Indiana University School of Medicine to help us turn around this terrible epidemic.
Do you still do clinical work or has that been sidelined because of your job?
I actually practice one day per month at Walter Reed Medical Center. I really feel it is important as “the nation’s doctor” to be able to say I’ve put hands on a patient in the recent past. I try to get there as much as I can, work with their residents, keep my skill set up, and also hear from people who are practicing what their challenges are in regard to being able to improve the health of all Americans.
How does your experience at IU, as a faculty member and resident physician, serve you now as Surgeon General?
Working at an inner-city hospital, I saw the impact of health disparities up close. I also saw what happens when we don’t pay attention to social needs and the social determinants of health. I literally just told a story to an audience about an individual I remember from Eskenazi Health whom we took care of on multiple occasions as a result of gang-related violence. He kept coming back over and over and over again. His choices and his outcomes were in large part determined by his circumstances. It didn’t matter what we did in the operating room if we were going to send him back out into the same environment where he felt he had no choice but to realign himself with the gang. I very much feel like my experiences have helped inform me and make me a better policy advocate, particularly for those individuals who need it the most.