Surgeon General of the United States

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The Surgeon General serves as America's Doctor by providing Americans the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury. The Surgeon General is appointed by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the United States Senate for a 4-year term of office. In carrying out all responsibilities, the Surgeon General reports to the Assistant Secretary for Health, United States Department of Health and Human Services, who is the principal adviser to the Secretary on public health and scientific issues.

The current Surgeon General is Rear Admiral Sylvia Trent-Adams. She is the acting Surgeon General, as of April 2017.

Dr. Benjamin is Founder and Former CEO of the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama, former Associate Dean for Rural Health at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine in Mobile, and immediate Past Chair of the Federation of State Medical Boards of the United States In 1995, she was the first physician under age 40 and the first African-American woman to be elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees. She served as President of the American Medical Association Education and Research Foundation and Chair of the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA). In 2002 she became President of the Medical Association State of Alabama, making her the first African-American female president of a State Medical Society in the United States.

Dr. Benjamin has a BS in chemistry from Xavier University, New Orleans; MD degree from the University of Alabama, Birmingham; an MBA from Tulane University and five Honorary Doctorates. She attended Morehouse School of Medicine and completed her family medicine residency in Macon, Ga. She established a clinic in a small fishing village in Alabama to help its uninsured residents. Dr. Benjamin persevered through Hurricane Georges in 1998, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and a devastating fire, in 2006, often putting up her own money to cover expenses. She also became nationally prominent for her business acumen and humane approach to preventive medicine.

Dr. Benjamin is a member of the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians. She was a Kellogg National Fellow and a Rockefeller Next Generation Leader. Some of her numerous board memberships include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, Catholic Health Association, and Morehouse School of Medicine.[1]

Duties of the Surgeon General

  • Protect and advance the health of the Nation through educating the public, advocating for effective disease prevention and health promotion programs and activities, and, providing a highly recognized symbol of national commitment to protecting and improving the public's health,
  • Articulate scientifically based health policy analysis and advice to the President and the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) on the full range of critical public health, medical, and health system issues facing the Nation,
  • Provide leadership in promoting special Departmental health initiatives, e.g., tobacco and HIV prevention efforts, with other governmental and non-governmental entities, both domestically and internationally,
  • Administer the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) Commissioned Corps, which is a uniquely expert, diverse, flexible, and committed career force of public health professionals who can respond to both current and long-term health needs of the Nation,
  • Provide leadership and management oversight for PHS Commissioned Corps involvement in Departmental emergency preparedness and response activities,
  • Elevate the quality of public health practice in the professional disciplines through the advancement of appropriate standards and research priorities, and
  • Fulfill statutory and customary Departmental representational functions on a wide variety of Federal boards and governing bodies of non-Federal health organizations, including the Board of Regents of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the National Library of Medicine, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States, and the American Medical Association.[2]

Office of the Surgeon General

The Office of the Surgeon General, under the direction of the Surgeon General, oversees the operations of the 6,500-member Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service and provides support for the Surgeon General in the accomplishment of her other duties. The Office is part of the Office of Public Health and Science in the Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

History of the Office of the Surgeon General

In 1798, Congress established the U. S. Marine Hospital Service—predecessor of today's U.S. Public Health Service—to provide health care to sick and injured merchant seamen. In 1870, the Marine Hospital Service was reorganized as a national hospital system with centralized administration under a medical officer, the Supervising Surgeon, who was later given the title of Surgeon General.

Dr. John Woodworth, was appointed as the first Supervising Surgeon in 1871, and established a cadre of medical personnel to administer the Marine Hospital System. On January 4, 1889, the Congress recognized this new personnel system by formally authorizing the Commissioned Corps. The Corps was established along military lines to be a mobile force of professionals subject to reassignment to meet the needs of the Service. Originally, the Corps was composed only of physicians. However, over the years, as the functional responsibilities of the Public Health Service (PHS) and the Corps have broadened, a commensurate broad range of health professionals has been included.

Prior to 1968, the Surgeon General was the head of the PHS, and all program, administrative, and financial management authorities flowed through the Surgeon General, who reported directly to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. In 1968, pursuant to a reorganization plan issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Secretary delegated line responsibility for the PHS to the Assistant Secretary for Health. The Office of the Surgeon General was abolished and the position of Surgeon General became that of a principal deputy to the Assistant Secretary for Health with responsibility for advising and assisting on professional medical matters. In addition, a primary role developed in which the Surgeon General became the PHS spokesperson on certain health issues. (Note: In 1972, the Surgeon General again became an advisor to the Secretary rather than the ASH. In 1977, the positions of ASH and Surgeon General were combined; in 1981, they were separated again.)

In 1987, the Office of the Surgeon General (OSG) was reestablished as a staff office within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. Concomitant with this action, the Surgeon General again became responsible for management of the Commissioned Corps personnel system. (Note: The Surgeon General does not directly supervise all Commissioned Officers; most work in PHS or other agencies and report to line managers of those agencies who may or may not be in the Corps.) In carrying out all responsibilities, the Surgeon General reports to the Assistant Secretary for Health, who is the principal advisor to the Secretary on public health and scientific issues.

In April 1987, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop launched a major effort to revitalize the Corps. Actions were taken to enhance all aspects of Corps management, including recruitment, especially of women and minorities, assignment, career development, and communication. Special efforts were made to make sure that agencies utilizing officers are actively involved in the formulation and review of policies and procedures related to administration of the Corps.

There currently are more than 6,500 officers on active duty. Officers are assigned to all of the PHS Agencies and to a number of agencies outside of PHS, including the Bureau of Prisons, U. S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, Health Care Financing Administration, and the Commission on Mental Health of the District of Columbia.[3]


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