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U.S. surgeon general discusses public health challenges with IUPUI students, faculty



INDIANAPOLIS — Despite what many think, the public health fight against tobacco use is far from over, the U.S. surgeon general told students and faculty at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, who became the 19th surgeon general in December, shared insights into that and other public health challenges, as well as life lessons learned from a career as a Boston internist, a self-described dreamer and a grass-roots organizer.

Murthy was in Indianapolis on Sept. 11 to attend meetings with a number of health-focused organizations during a day organized by the Fairbanks School of Public Health. He added the talk with health and life sciences students at IUPUI to his schedule at the invitation of the public health school.

“We were delighted to be able to arrange for the surgeon general to meet with our students and other health and life sciences students at IUPUI,” said Paul Halverson, founding dean of the Fairbanks School of Public Health. “IUPUI has a national reputation for training exceptional public health and health care professionals.  Opportunities like this, in which our students can learn from national health leaders and interact with them in a less formal setting, extend learning beyond the classroom and contribute to our students being well-rounded and well-prepared to step into today’s challenging health jobs.”

As surgeon general, Murthy is responsible for communicating scientific information to the public regarding ways to improve personal and public health. He also oversees the operations of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, composed of about 6,700 uniformed health officers.

Many people who think “we’ve beaten tobacco” remember the big tobacco lawsuits and news stories from the ’80s and ’90s,” Murthy said.

But the tobacco industry is on track to make one of its largest profits this year, he said. “A lot of people are still smoking, which still leads the pack for causing preventable diseases and death.”

“How do we prevent a new generation from re-engaging in smoking?” he asked. “The answer is sitting right here in this room. It starts with all of you.”

(See surgeon general discuss tobacco)

Asked about the gap between health care and public health, Murthy said that it is at the heart of a more fundamental problem: The U.S is a country that values treatment more than prevention.

“People love to talk about the clinics and hospitals they build, not the ones they didn’t have to build because people are healthy,” Murthy said.

One solution is to redefine how people think about public health, from being one (economic) sector among many to the sector that lays the foundation that allows every other sector to function.

“If people aren’t healthy, they aren’t building roads; if they are not healthy, they can’t do all the other things the other sectors do,” he said.

In addition to clinical practice, Murthy has engaged in public service, research, education and entrepreneurship. From these “adventures,” Murthy offered three lessons

  • Take risks. Most people overestimate how much risk they are taking and underestimate the amount of resilience they have. Taking risks often results in great dividends
  • Think short-term and not long-term. Thinking five or 10 years into the future robs us of the opportunity to plan short-term fulfillment. “I’m talking about doing things that bring joy and give you meaning, even if you don’t know where they are going to lead.”
  • Have anchors in your life, people who keep you grounded, support you during difficult times and remind you of who you really are.