America's Health: Our Top Doctor's 2006 Report Card
Acting U.S. Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu weighs in on our health -- and his own.
In your view, what is the No. 1 health crisis in America today?
Health literacy. We have a lot of science and a lot of information, and we
can talk all about prevention and medications, but if people don't understand
what health pros are trying to do, all is for naught. And it's not just the
people we serve, but also on the part of health professionals.
Health professionals often talk "doctorese." Sometimes people don't
fully understand what we are trying to advise them to do. I don't want to
demonize doctors. We are all trying to do the right thing. What we need to
remember is communication is not a one-way street. We may think we have made a
point, but have not. And we may think patients have understood, but they don't.
Communication is not one-size-fits-all. It is modified and modulated by
culture, gender, language -- all these things are important as we communicate.
The Institute of Medicine reports that low health literacy adds $50 billion to
health care costs. Ninety million Americans can't adequately understand basic
health information. Can you imagine what we could do if we could get even half
of these Americans to understand health better?
Are Americans getting smarter about smoking?
We are. In 1964, when the first Surgeon General report on smoking came out,
the majority of American men and women smoked. Most don't now. We are getting
smarter. When the report came out a few years ago, we are very heartened to
learn that people are understanding [the risk] and taking it to heart. We were
able to communicate the message in such a way that people hear it, understand
it, and put it into action. What about teens? The number of teens taking up
smoking continues to go down compared to the late '90s. It's the lowest ever
since 1991. The not-so-good news is that the rate of decline is beginning to
stall. We can't be complacent. We need to communicate to teens in ways they can
hear the message, embrace it, and put it into action. And we need to appreciate
that our young adults are educated people who can learn to make the right
choices for themselves.
Why is organ donation such an important issue to you?
Organ donation is a professional and personal issue. As a physician, I have
always been a proponent of organ and tissue donation. I have seen the
life-giving benefits it provides to other individuals. It became personal to me
when my wife was killed in an auto accident. Because she and I talked about it,
we had the privilege of donating her organs. Four people received solid organs
and had a longer life because of her. Four years later, my 22-year-old daughter
was struck by a car while crossing the street. Because of her gift, another
five people had a renewed life. Today, 93,000 people are on a waiting list for
a transplant. If we could only find enough donors, people who are generous
enough. When we are faced with the sudden death of a loved one, we are in the
depths of grief. But in our grief, we see that good can come of it, helping us
to remember our loved ones and what they were able to do as organ and tissue
When you put a human face in front of the issue, that makes a difference.
That is why I feel so passionate both professionally and personally about this