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Sanjay Gupta Approached For Surgeon General Post

January 7, 2009

Should President-elect Obama’s select CNN journalist and physician Sanjay Gupta as his new surgeon general, it could bring some star power to a position that has flown relatively under the radar for many years.

Gupta, a neurosurgeon and top medical correspondent for cable news channel CNN, still works part-time in one of the nation’s toughest hospitals in addition to his CNN assignments, which have taken him from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina.

He also co-hosted health network broadcasts wellness advice on TVs in clinic waiting rooms throughout the country.  The network has come under criticism by some for its promotion of pharmaceutical companies.

Gupta, 39, currently hosts CNN’s “House Call”, contributes reports to CBS News, and writes a column for Time magazine, along with operating and overseeing residents part-time at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, a facility renowned for its trauma cases.  He was once a White House fellow and special adviser to then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Clinton administration.

Although the surgeon general does not set public health policy, the office can be an effective bully pulpit.  Indeed, a major report directed at Congress last month called for “a more prominent and powerful role for the surgeon general who … should be a strong advocate for the American people.”

Previous surgeons general pushed the country to fight tobacco and AIDS.  However, having a well-known celebrity could give the post a clout not seen since C. Everett Koop, who served under President Ronald Reagan and helped make AIDS a public health issue.  However, in contrast to the grandfatherly Koop, People magazine named the then-single Gupta one of the sexiest men of 2003.

Gupta’s medical credentials, combined with his popularity as a TV personality, are “like a name-brand immediately,” Dr. Michael Johns, chancellor at Emory University, where Gupta is an assistant professor of neurosurgery, told the Associated Press.

“If chosen, Dr. Gupta’s communication skills and medical knowledge could be a boon to the new administration’s health system reform efforts,” said Dr. Joseph Heyman, chairman of the American Medical Association’s board.

CNN has said that Obama had approached Gupta about the Surgeon General post, but would not comment on the discussions.

“Since first learning that Dr. Gupta was under consideration for the surgeon general position, CNN has made sure that his on-air reporting has been on health and wellness matters and not on health care policy or any matters involving the new administration,” the cable network said Tuesday.

Any new surgeon general will “need to demonstrate skills that are too often missing in medical news on TV: skepticism about the science and a careful analysis of both the benefits and harms of medical care,” Drs. Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice told the AP.

The pair raised concerns last fall about drug-company sponsorship of some programs that Gupta had hosted as part of a larger critique of the media’s general medical coverage.  On Tuesday, they called for a careful examination of any potential conflicts of interest.

According to an Associated Press report, two Democrats with knowledge of the discussions over the surgeon general post confirmed that Gupta was under consideration, but warned that a choice had not yet been made.  The AP report said no one in Obama’s transition office had immediately responded to requests for comment.

Other than a few political donations in recent years, Gupta seems to have stayed out of politics. Should he assume the surgeon general position, he would have to abandon his lucrative media-and-medical empire.  

Gupta, the son of parents who moved from India to the U.S. in the 1960s to work at a Ford plant, grew up in Detroit.   He earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Michigan.

Image Courtesy CNN

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