Surgeon General Addresses Meharry Convocation
Surgeon General Addresses Meharry Convocation | Meharry Medical College, Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Regina M. Benjamin, Meharry Convocation, obesity and overweight, prevention, Wayne J. Riley

Dr. Wayne Riley, President & CEO of Meharry Medical College presents the 18th U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin with an honorary degree from the medical school during the 2010 Fall Convocation.

The 135th session of Meharry Medical College was initiated on Oct. 4, 2010. Called to order by Robert G. Holt, PhD, chair of the Meharry Faculty Senate, the day’s events paid homage to distinguished alumni and recognized the student leaders who will help shape the future of healthcare.

Adedapo T. Ajayi, pre-alumni president and a member of the Meharry Medical College Class of 2012, called on fellow students to “confront and confound the shameful disparities that undermine the health status of this wealthy nation’s most underserved populations.” He vowed that his class would make a difference in the lives they touched. “We will make you proud.”

Poverty Increases in Tennessee

The Surgeon General’s message that poverty is a major detriment to health is a particularly sobering one in light of recent Census Bureau statistics showing America is deeper in poverty today than it has been in more than a decade.

In Tennessee 23.9 percent of children live below poverty line … this figure is up from 21.8 percent in 2008.

Wayne J. Riley, MD, MPH, MBA, president and chief executive officer of Meharry, introduced the day’s keynote speaker and honorary degree recipient Vice Admiral Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA, the 18th Surgeon General of the United States. Recognizing Benjamin’s history of working with the poor and making personal sacrifices to do so, Riley said, “As citizens of this great country, I can’t think of a better qualified and more compassionate person to serve as America’s doctor.”

Before her unanimous confirmation last fall as Surgeon General, Benjamin, an Alabama native, had devoted much of her career to delivering care in a small shrimping village in her home state. She founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic 25 years ago to provide primary care to the town’s 2,500 residents. Three times she has been called on to rebuild her clinic as it was destroyed by Hurricane Georges, flooded by Hurricane Katrina, and leveled by fire.

“Delivering quality medical care in rural America is not for the faint of heart,” said Riley. “Nor is it for those lacking compassion, generosity and determination. It’s only for those who see it as their duty and obligation to serve those in need.

“Today this nation’s ranking public health professional … the leader of the United States Public Health Service … comes to us bringing an optimistic message we can ill afford to ignore.”

Taking the podium, Benjamin expressed her gratitude at being asked to speak at the 2010 Convocation. “Meharry really is a national treasure. You say it, but it really is true. Seventy-five percent of the graduates go and practice in underserved communities.”

Benjamin said that she learned through her experiences “one person can make a difference whether in public health or personal practice.” In her clinic experiences, she saw just how much difference quality care could make in the lives of patients. For that reason, she had mixed emotions leaving Bayou La Batre to take up her new responsibilities. “However, as I tend to say, I now have opened a practice in Washington where I have 300 million Americans as my new patients. And as America’s doctor, I want to provide Americans with the best scientific information available on how to live healthier lives … trying to bring some clarity and understanding to the overwhelmingly confusing conversations about health and healthcare.”

Benjamin has been particularly heartened by the emphasis on access to coverage and preventative services in the recently passed healthcare reform law. While access is clearly important, Benjamin noted, “Giving all Americans healthcare coverage is just the first step to truly reducing the health disparities that plague our country, but we know that reducing or eliminating health disparities requires more than giving Americans an insurance card. We have to address the social determinants of health such as poverty.”

Referencing a study published in December 2009 in the “American Journal of Public Health,” Benjamin said, “Poverty and dropout rates are at least as important a health problem as smoking is in the United States. On average, poverty shows the greatest impact on health. Smoking is second followed by being a high school dropout.”

The second step to overcoming health disparities, she said, is just as challenging … and that is prevention. “Prevention is the foundation of our nation’s public health system, and prevention is the foundation of my work.”

In January, Benjamin released her first paper outlining the Surgeon General’s vision for a healthy and fit America. “There is perhaps no more serious challenge to the nation’s health and well being than those posed by obesity and overweight,” she stated. “Since 1980, obesity rates have doubled in adults and tripled in children.”

Benjamin said the healthcare audience was well aware of the often-cited statistics that show more than two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese. “We see the sober impact of these numbers in the high rates of chronic disease.”

She added that both her approach and that of First Lady Michelle Obama in her Let’s Move campaign take a comprehensive approach engaging families, communities and the public and private sector. Recognizing that past interventions have not had a sustainable impact, she said, “My vision for a healthy and fit nation is an attempt to change that national conversation from a negative one about being obese and illness to a positive conversation about being healthy and being fit.” She continued, “We really need to stop bombarding Americans about what they can’t have … what they can’t do, and begin to talk about what they can do to be healthy.”

To achieve this, Benjamin pointed out, people need to live and work in supportive environments. She said there is a growing national consensus for the need to create an environment where the healthy choices are the easy and affordable choices. She pointed to Nashville as a community where this is beginning to take root.

“A few months ago I asked healthcare organizations around the country to join me in something called the “Exercise is Medicine” initiative, and hopefully you will join that, as well,” she challenged the audience. “I believe exercise is the new medicine,” she continued, stressing the program brings activity to the forefront of disease and treatment by making exercise a part of every patient’s interaction with their health provider. Continuing the positive message, she said ‘exercise’ should be engaging in enjoyable activities … dance, jump rope, run and play. “We should remember that individuals are more likely to change their behavior if they have a meaningful reward.”

Rather than focusing strictly on a weight or dress size, Benjamin said it’s important to meet people of all sizes where they are and set smaller, attainable goals. She continued, “Reward has to be something that each person can feel … that they can enjoy … that they can celebrate. The real reward is personal health that allows people to embrace each day and live their lives to the fullest without disease, without disability and without loss of productivity.”

In addition to the obesity epidemic, Benjamin also touched on other priorities for the country including increasing breastfeeding, working to lower smoking and tobacco usage rates, addressing mental health and substance abuse issues and continuing work to battle HIV/AIDS. She also said violence … particularly bullying … has become a public health problem.

Finally, as America’s doctor, she had a prescription for the students and faculty in attendance … remember to take care of themselves. Using the analogy of a flight attendant’s safety lecture, she called on providers to “put your own face mask on before attempting to help others.” She counseled students to find time to enjoy life and keep friendships close. “You’re not any good to anybody if you’re grouchy, tired, exhausted or have a heart attack.”