January 09, 2009

Journalist-doctor Gupta Obama pick for Surgeon General

merica's most famous television surgeon, Sanjay Gupta, is poised to take his black bag and microphone to the White House as President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for US Surgeon General.

A neurosurgeon who is also a correspondent for CNN and CBS, Gupta was chosen as much for his broadcasting skills as his medical resume, suggesting that the incoming administration values visible advisers who can drive a public message. He has also been offered a top post in the new White House Office of Health Reform, twin duties that could make him the highest-profile surgeon general in history.

A practising physician and one of People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive”, Gupta met for more than two hours with Obama in Chicago on November 25, according to two sources with knowledge of the talks. Gupta, 39, later spoke with several Obama advisers, including Tom Daschle, who will run the new White House policy office and the Department of Health and Human Services.

The globetrotting doctor has told Obama aides he wants the job, which involves overseeing the 6,000-member Commissioned Corps of the US Public Health Service. When reached on Tuesday, Gupta did not deny that he plans to accept the offer but declined to comment.

Transition officials refused to speak on record about his selection, but several Obama allies praised Gupta as the sort of highly visible, articulate physician who might restore the lustre that the position of “the nation’s doctor” once had.

A representative of the Commissioned Corps, however, said Gupta will face a “credibility gap” because he has never served in the uniformed Public Health Service.

“I am unaware of any public health experience or qualifications he has to be the leader of the nation’s public health service,” said Gerard Farrell, Executive Director of the service’s Commissioned Officers’ Association. “This would be akin to appointing the army chief of staff from the city council of Hoboken (NJ)”.

If he is confirmed by the Senate, Gupta would provide the administration with a skilled television personality to help market what is planned to be a massive reorganisation of the US health system.

The Obama team already has initiated a public relations campaign aimed at mobilising grass-roots support for eventual health reform legislation. Last week, Daschle appeared at town-hall style meetings in Indiana and Washington to solicit public inputs.

The son of Indian parents, Gupta has always been drawn to policy-making. He was a White House fellow in the late 1990s, writing speeches and crafting policy for then first lady Hillary Clinton. He is currently associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta’s busy downtown hospital. His appointment would give the administration a prominent official of South Asian descent.

Gupta’s jobs as journalist and physician have sometimes overlapped. During the 2003 Iraq invasion, he was embedded with a Navy unit called Devil Docs and, while covering its mission for CNN, performed brain surgery five times, the first of which was on a two-year-old Iraqi boy.

“I’m a doctor first,” he told The Washington Post in a 2006 interview. “If I had to choose one today, I’d choose medicine.”

Gupta hosts House Call on CNN, and in October aired a special report on presidential health called Fit to Lead. Once CNN became aware of the negotiations with Obama, the network barred Gupta from reporting on health policy. His only hesitation in taking the post involved the financial impact on his pregnant wife and two children if he gives up his lucrative medical and television careers. The surgeon general’s post pays between $143,500 and $196,700.

The experience of the last surgeon general, Richard Carmona, may serve as a cautionary note for Gupta. The outspoken Vietnam Veteran accused the Bush White House of muzzling him and suppressing important public health information because it did not align with the administration’s political views.

To survive a job in Washington, Carmona famously observed, get two dogs because “one of them will turn on you”.

But like Carmona, who had been a SWAT team member, Gupta would arrive in Washington with some unusual survival skills. Four years ago, in a series titled Life Beyond Limits, the television doctor walked on glass shards.

“I couldn’t bring myself to jump,” he said on air, “but at least we both walked away without a scratch.”

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