One fact has become undeniably clear as Vivek Murthy, MD, has traveled the country during the last 10 months in his role as U.S. Surgeon General. “No matter where we live, no matter where we practice, many of us are dealing with a similar set of shared challenges,” Dr. Murthy told a crowd of DOs gathered at OMED 2015 in Orlando.
Those challenges stem from what Dr. Murthy calls a “tsunami of chronic illnesses” including diabetes and heart disease, which are responsible for 7 out of 10 deaths in America and drive more than $1 trillion in health care costs each year.
Although the statistics are shocking, Dr. Murthy said the key takeaway is that many of these chronic illnesses are preventable. “The science is fairly clear on what we can do to help prevent much in the way of chronic disease, but the fact is that in too many of our communities, people still don’t have access to healthy and affordable foods.” he said. “People lack safe places to walk or wheelchair roll, or simply to play outside.”
Even more insidious, patients no longer have a sense of agency when it comes to managing their health, he noted. “People have lost faith in their ability to determine their own destiny and they feel more and more that their health is less and less in their control,” he said.
Turning the tide
Helping patients take control of their health and wellbeing is imperative to reversing the tide of chronic illness, Dr. Murthy said, imploring physicians to work toward creating a “culture of prevention” that focuses on preventing illness instead of just treating it.
Noting that people are often predisposed to believe their lives are a series of choices between health and happiness, Dr. Murthy said creating a culture of prevention is about finding creative ways to make healthy choices both attractive and accessible. “We can talk to our patients about how to build prevention into their lives in small ways,” he said.
Dr. Murthy’s office recently announced a call to action on walkable communities, stressing that just 22 minutes of brisk walking per day can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. “Something we’ve been doing for millennia, something that doesn’t require expensive equipment or trainers, can help save lives,” he said.
The toughest issues
Calling on physicians to become more involved as civic leaders, Dr. Murthy stressed the importance of working with city councils, mayors and the media to address the underlying determinants of health: transportation, poverty, housing and infrastructure. “If we are going to become the leaders our country needs at this time in history, we need to be willing to take on the toughest issues facing America,” he said.
Another issue taking a toll on communities, big and small, is the opioid epidemic, Dr. Murthy said. Acknowledging the leadership role the AOA has played in fighting prescription drug abuse, he announced that his office will soon launch a grassroots campaign directed at helping the physician community take ownership of the issue by changing prescribing practices. “This is an effort that will be driven by and participated in by physicians,” he said.