What Sanjay Gupta Offers a Daschle-Run Health Team

The CNN medical correspondent could be terrific as surgeon general.


By Bernadine Healy M.D.

Though Barack Obama has not spoken, it appears that his transition team has confirmed that Sanjay Gupta, the chief medical correspondent for CNN, is the president-elect's top choice to be U.S. surgeon general. Gupta, a surgeon and assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University (where he still cares for patients), would bring to the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services unique talents unrivaled by any of the prior 17 surgeons general going back to 1871. Among them are his truly outstanding health communication skills and the fact that he is already a trusted figure in many people's living rooms on all matters of health and disease—particularly on the major national heath problems that are within the domain of the surgeon general.

Gupta's leadership of CNN's "Fit Nation," a broad initiative targeting obesity (including the hazards of obesity in children), for example, meshes well with a similar initiative forged by former Surgeon General David Satcher, who back in 2002 called for the nation to recognize obesity as both a disease and a national epidemic that requires communities—not just individuals—to take action. Gupta's extensive reporting on AIDS readies him to take on that epidemic with the same vigor C. Everett Koop displayed. Gupta is similarly ready for tobacco, which has been a major focus of most surgeons general since Luther Terry. In 1964, Surgeon General Terry initiated the long, drawn-out war against the evil weed with the most famous and enduring of the many surgeon general's reports that connect tobacco use to lung cancer and other diseases.

Speaking of wars, Gupta gained some unique battlefield exposure as an embedded correspondent in Iraq with a U.S. Navy medical unit dubbed the "Devil Docs." He will no doubt bring to the job a perspective on military health eminently helpful to his office as the Iraq War winds down and thousands of men and women return to civilian life carrying with them their wartime experiences and sometimes residual illnesses.

The task of the surgeon general to serve as the nation's chief health educator is so broad that every president's choice tends to reflect White House priorities. President Bush gave the last surgeon general, Richard Carmona, a mandate at the outset to focus on physical fitness, exercise, and health literacy and pretty much kept his service within narrow parameters.

In contrast, it sounds as if President-elect Obama is expanding the role, adding yet another task for Sanjay Gupta, should he decide to take this position. Unlike his predecessors, Gupta would be a designated policy adviser on health reform, part of the Health and Human Services team working within the White House headed by Obama's HHS secretary, Tom Daschle. Gupta comes to this task, too, with some experience: Early in his career as a White House fellow, he worked with now Sen. Hillary Clinton on health policy. President-elect Obama may be planning ahead, knowing, as Clinton learned, that whatever plan he comes up with will live or die depending on the talents of his most skilled and seasoned public health communicators.

Corrected on : Clarification: An earlier version of this article wasn't clear about Sanjay Gupta's role when he was a White House fellow. He worked on health policy during the Clinton administration.