The doctor is on: Dr. Sanjay Gupta might be a capable broadcaster, but don’t we expect a little more from our surgeon general?

Published on
March 5, 2009

Update: Dr. Gupta removed himself from the list of candidates on March 5, telling CNN's Larry King, "I think for me it really came down to a sense of timing more than anything else. This job...takes us away from our children for so many years at once, and I sort of came to grips that I'd probably be away for several years of their lives."

Dr. Sanjay Gupta appears to be the first surgeon general picked not for his public service but for his public image.

President Barack Obama's other appointments and their tax troubles are eating up all the air time right now, but I am surprised that few journalists have dug into Gupta's resume.

The surgeon general is the president's top medical advisor and the person who oversees thousands of federal public health workers. In some ways, the surgeon general's most important role is to try to rally the public behind a particular issue, like the dangers of cigarettes. So Gupta's supporters will say that his broadcast experience makes him the perfect candidate to talk to the public.

But talking about healthcare, especially the health of a community as big as the United States, only works if you really understand it and understand the politics and the bureaucratic machinery necessary to get things done.

Every surgeon general in history has come to the job with serious public health credentials. One created new sewage systems to stop the spread of infectious diseases.

Another set up the country's first neonatal intensive care unit. Together they tackled history's greatest public health threats - polio, influenza, bubonic plague, AIDS - helping create prevention protocols and treatment regimens that are now international standards. All of this before the president tapped them on the shoulder.

And Gupta?

It's hard to say. The 39-year-old neurosurgeon's public service seems to amount to a few surgeries he performed in Iraq while working as a CNN correspondent there. "Gupta: Saving lives on the front lines," brags one CNN post about a surgery he performed. That sort of promotion puts Gupta first, the public second. Battleground surgeries are impressive, to be sure. But one has to wonder whether he would have been as eager had the cameras been off.

Gupta graduated from medical school in 2000. A year later, he was working at CNN. He has always billed himself as a working neurosurgeon. He is the assistant chief of neurosurgery at Atlanta's public hospital, Grady Medical Center, and he works as an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine.

A good reporter could probably find out without too much trouble how many patients Gupta actually sees in a given week, how many surgeries he performs, classes he teaches, residents he oversees, etc. A Grady spokeswoman says he sees patients once a week there and performs surgeries once a week. I contacted Gupta at Grady, but he did not return my calls.

Talk to some patients there and see how they feel about him, making sure to ask enough questions to cut through the inevitable good will that must come with being the patient of a celebrity.

And what about Gupta's on air work?

Some very dialed-in bloggers, including Gary Schwitzer at the University of Minnesota, who used to run CNN's medical team, and Sandy Szwarc at Junkfood Science, have posted some great critiques of Gupta's coverage, showing his tendency to oversimplify and overhype during his weekly show "House Call."

He downplays side effects,Szwarc says, and makes broad claims on the efficacy of treatments even when he is out of his depth.

And then there is Accent Health, a CNN-produced package of advertisements and news stories that run in a continuous loop in doctors' waiting rooms. The same companies that make the drugs and treatments that are discussed in the Accent Health reports are the ones that are advertising during the show. It would be well worth a reporter's time to watch a few hours of past reports to see how often Gupta downplayed side effects or overplayed the benefits of a sponsor's product.

Schwitzer wonders whether the appointment of Gupta is a sign that the surgeon general has outlived its usefulness, like the Pony Express. I tend to think the surgeon general can bring focus to an issue that demands it, like the rise in autism rates or the prevalence of prescription medications in drinking water. Just as reporters have done a good job scrutinizing Obama's picks for health, commerce and treasury positions, they need to find out whether Gupta is the right doctor to act as a champion for the public.