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During Stanford talk, U.S. Surgeon General calls for creation of a “culture of prevention”


Updated 10-23-15: Video of this talk is now available here.


10-13-15: “In few other places in the world would the son of a rural farmer from India be asked by the President to serve the health of an entire nation,” remarked U.S. Surgeon General and Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, as he opened the latest Dean’s Lecture here last Thursday.

In making the remark, Murthy recalled the words spoken to him by Vice President Joe Biden, when Murthy became the nation’s 19th Surgeon General and the first of Indian descent.

“My story is part of the immigrant story that makes up America,” he said, describing his childhood with highly supportive parents who emigrated from India and settled in Florida, where Murthy and his sister worked weekends in their parents’ primary care clinic.

The experience led Murthy to medical school at Harvard — “I tried to come to Stanford, but it was vetoed by my mother, who was afraid of earthquakes”—followed by an extraordinary list of pursuits that included founding the nonprofit Doctors for America and biotech startup TrialNetworks.

Murthy’s background is now helping to inform his work as surgeon general, which has brought him to places all across the country during his ten-month tenure. He said his travels have reinforced two main themes: America faces an overwhelming burden of disease that is largely preventable, yet many Americans are beginning to lose faith in their ability to improve their own health.

“We invest relatively little in prevention and pay for it much later, often in the form of chronic illness — but that is something we can change,” he noted.

Murthy called for the creation of a “culture of prevention,” rooted in three principles: nutrition, physical activity, and emotional well-being. Among his many strategies are improving the taste and accessibility of “healthy” foods, motivating Americans to simply walk more, and encouraging people to engage in practices like mindfulness meditation.

He also issued a special call to all medical trainees in the room, advising them to see themselves not just as clinicians, but as civic leaders. “Your success entails being a leader in your community,” Murthy said, “someone who can speak up compellingly for a larger vision around health and bring people together across sectors to make that vision real.”

Initially introduced to the audience by Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, Murthy was then joined on stage by his longtime mentor Abraham Verghese, MD, MACP, who helped to lead a Q&A that further explored many of Murthy’s earlier points. Above all, Murthy urged the audience to remember the power of collective will when facing the considerable health challenges now in our midst.

“Ultimate success doesn’t end with treatment,” Murthy said. “It ends with ensuring that patients never have to walk through our doors in the first place. That’s real success.”

The next lecture in this series will feature Freeman Hrabowski, PhD, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Hrabowski will speak on Nov. 11 from 12-1 PM at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge.

Stephanie Bruzzese has been writing about science, medicine, and technology for more than 15 years. She is currently senior director, brand strategy at Stanford Medicine.

Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

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