The Seventh Annual Undergraduate Conference in Public Health invited current U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy for its keynote address in Shriver Hall on Tuesday.
His appearance at Hopkins wrapped up a day of events around Baltimore that brought professionals and student researchers together for public health-related interests. Also a vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (PHSCC), he acts as the highest authority for public health in the country and is the first Indian-American to take the post.
Murthy’s experience as a health professional started from an early age, when he spent time at his father’s medical clinic. As a freshman at Harvard College, he and his sister founded VISIONS Worldwide, a program in which college students taught HIV prevention to young Indian people at a time when the country faced an HIV health crisis.
He earned a dual M.D.-M.B.A. from Yale and later became a teaching physician at Harvard Medical School before his appointment by President Obama. In addition, he has experience in vaccine research, leading a software company and founding various non-profits aimed at improving healthcare and health education in the United States and India.
Junior Gauri Bhatnagar, president of the Public Health Student Forum, first asked Murthy questions about his uniform and his current responsibility. Murthy joked that many people are confused about his uniform as well and believe that he is in the navy or an airline pilot.
“The Commissioned Corps is a group of individual who are soldiers for health. They deploy during times of public health emergencies, whether that is Ebola, 9/11, Zika or the water problems in Flint. They go and help in times of crisis,” he said.
As head of the U.S. Public Health Service, one of the country’s seven uniformed services, and an adviser to the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, his office’s two top focuses are on health equity and prioritizing prevention over treatment. Murthy believes that the challenge of reducing the rates of chronic illness in America will not be addressed by fixing the health care system, but rather by changing the underlying cultural issues.
He spoke about developing more walkable communities and increasing access to fruits and vegetables in deserted neighborhoods, noting the close ties between health equity and social equity. The unrest last April following the death of Freddie Gray highlighted the distress that many neighborhoods in Baltimore face.
“What that experience highlighted for many was how racial tensions and injustice are still not a thing of the past but that it is still a part of reality for many people,” he said. “We have to make sure that is available for everyone, not for those who live in the right neighborhoods or have the right level of education.”
In contrast with practicing clinical medicine, which approaches health from an individual, case-by-case basis, solving public health problems requires a multi-dimensional approach that addresses many complex factors. He stated that environment and culture greatly influences our lives and the choices and opportunities we have intricately ties in with the state of our health.
“Health is really the key to opportunity. If you have a relative who has suffered from illness, then illness is one of the most powerful paths through which opportunity can be taken from people,” he said.
In his call for America’s transition from treatment to prevention, Murthy discussed the need to create a culture and environment that are conducive to personal well-being and a concerted effort to combat unhealthy living in the United States.
“We work on changing the culture, environment and look at how health is influenced by our policies,” he said. “If you don’t live in a community that doesn’t have healthy food, then the likelihood is that your food choices are going to be unhealthy. Many of us have told patients to walk after eating meals, but if you live in a neighborhood where walking after dinner could get you mugged or shot, they are not going to do that,” Murthy said.
Prevention also involves making healthy choices appear more desirable. As an example, Murthy stated that he changed his coffee break with a friend into a walk. He wants to see a change in public values that addresses health disparities, mental health and scientifically-backed policy decisions.
Murthy stated that another challenge health experts face is a problem with the level of scientific literacy of the American public and even government officials, as it relates to medicine. To make future policy work, people need to trust the direction that science takes. His job as surgeon general, the face of public health for the country, requires him to communicate scientifically sound health advice to the public.
“We not only have to make sure it is reflected in policy, but to make sure it’s a value we hold in our own minds. The only way that will become a value is if more and more people become aware of it,” he said.
For much of his talk, Murthy also shared advice on making life choices and dealing with stress with attendees.
“I worry that people in America are living with more stress in younger and younger ages. I just want to see... in the last month, how many of you have experienced an unbearable level of stress?” he asked. “There’s something happening in our society where people are experiencing more and more stress. It’s manifested in suicide rates, substance abuses and chronic illness... An important part of building a healthy society is creating ways to manage stress in our daily stress.”
Nearly every attendee had raised his or her hand about having faced stress. Murthy encouraged students to focus more on the short term rather than on getting outcomes. He also suggested taking risks and doing whatever “lights you up inside,” and trusting in the support of the family and friends. He said that although many people choose their path based on feedback from parents or because they think it makes sense, students should act on inspiration.
Snehaa Maripudi, a recent Hopkins graduate, praised Murthy’s speaking ability.
“He was humble in the way that he answered questions, and he answered in a relatable way,” she said.
Junior Minny Kim said she felt empowered by the discussion.
“I really like how he said that no matter how old you are, you can influence society and you don’t have a list of qualifications,” Kim said.
Murthy repeatedly said that he was grateful for all of the opportunites that his life afforded him. He urged students to make things happen when they are young, bringing up his experience with founding VISIONS Worldwide.
“What kind of change do you want to make?” he asked. “It doesn’t have to be huge. There are small things you can do that can change the lives of people. It starts now, and it doesn’t take place five, 10 years in the future. That’s true whether you are six or 66 years old.”