Should Gupta Be the Nation's Top Doc?

Normally he is busy reporting medical news, but this week Dr. Sanjay Gupta became the big story.

So far, he has been silent about whether he'll accept any offer to be surgeon general in Barack Obama's administration.

But other voices have been quick to comment on the idea.

Late night comedy host David Letterman said, "It was hard for Obama to make the choice, it was between Gupta, Dr. Phil, and a guy on Scrubs."

But there are many who are not laughing, arguing that a doctor on television should not become the nation's top doctor -- the doctor who would offer advice to the president about health and disease and lead some 6,000 uniformed health officials across the country.

Dr. Douglas Kamerow, a former assistant surgeon general, commented on the possibility of Gupta as surgeon general. "He obviously knows a lot, reporting about medicine, but it's not the same as spending 15 or 20 years working in public health, in these issues and working in the government," said Kamerow.

During Bill Clinton's presidency, Gupta was a White House fellow advising then-first lady Hillary Clinton on health care. But some argue years of service in public health isn't necessarily what's most important.

Dr. Linda Degutis, the former President of the American Health Association, said it's about communication. "One of the reasons it is a good pick is that Dr. Gupta is already recognized by the public and one of the key roles of the surgeon general is to communicate with the public," said Degutis.

The 39-year-old doctor embedded with a Navy medical unit at the start of the Iraq War, drawing attention when he performed surgery on an injured Iraqi child. He also reported on the health crises that faced victims of the tsunami and the troubles in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

But some of Dr. Gupta's reports have created controversy. A few of Gupta's facts in his critique of Michael Moore's documentary "Sicko," on the nation's health care woes, were wrong. Gupta apologized to Moore, saying he just wanted to get the facts straight.

But proponents argue a Gupta appointment would bring renewed promise to the role of surgeon general. Not since the Reagan years has a surgeon general been a household name. Dr. C. Everett Koop, the Reagan administration surgeon general, spoke out against cigarette smoking. He also spoke out publicly about AIDS at a time when the president was largely silent, saying that the rumors and misinformation about AIDS needed to end.

President George Bush's surgeon general resigned in 2006, claiming he'd been muzzled by the White House. Since then, the position hasn't been filled. This is why health advocates on both sides of the Gupta debate say Obama's choice now takes on even greater significance.

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