Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin

The former top doctor of the U.S. and new chair of public health sciences at Xavier University talks about her mission to transform public health.

As the 18th Surgeon General of the U.S., Dr. Regina Benjamin was the force behind President Obama's initiative to reduce preventable illness rates and led the creation of the first-ever National Prevention Strategy. She stepped down in July and was recently chosen to helm the new Public Health Sciences department at her alma mater, Louisiana's Xavier University. The Alabama native was previously a vice admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and associate dean for rural health at the University of South Alabama's College of Medicine. Benjamin, who also holds an MBA, will continue to volunteer at the health clinic she founded in Bayou La Batre, AL.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Transforming public health in this country has grabbed headlines, as the Affordable Care Act is debated and implemented, making healthcare affordable for everyone in this country is just one part of what needs to be done to assure that Americans of all economic strata have access to medical services.

Joining us now is former Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, who’s just become the chair of public health sciences at Xavier University in New Orleans. She joins us from that city. Dr. Benjamin, good to have you on this program.

Dr. Regina Benjamin: Great to be here, thank you.

Tavis: When you see my friend Norman Francis, the longstanding president of Xavier, the longest-serving college president in the country, tell him I said he made a great decision, having you at Xavier.

Benjamin: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: You went to school there, did you not?

Benjamin: I’m alum. I was undergrad, all four years. Got introduced to medicine there, and I’m a doctor because of it right now.

Tavis: Look back on your tenure as Surgeon General, and tell me what you are most proud of in terms of what you were able to do.

Benjamin: I’m a long-time champion of the power of prevention, and so having led the prevention efforts and establish the first-ever national prevention strategy, which is a roadmap for the nation’s health and wellness and fitness, to lead us to become a more healthy and fit nation is one of my most prized accomplishments.

It’s the first time ever to have a council of 17 Cabinet-level members sit down together to put together a strategy for the nation to become more healthy and fit.

Tavis: What do you intend to do to continue that work at Xavier?

Benjamin: Well, I left the position but I did not leave the mission. So I’m continuing to push the efforts of public health to lead us from a healthcare system based on sickness and disease to one based on wellness and prevention.

So Xavier offers a wonderful opportunity for me. Having this endowed chair allows me to continue that national level of engagement, but more importantly it allows me to start to develop young professionals, young health professionals in health careers.

As you know, Xavier is renowned for getting more – the most – minority, particularly African American students, to go into health careers, particularly in medicine, and to graduate from medical school. We’re number one in that.

But more recently, we’ve become number one in getting African American students to go into Ph.D.s in biology and chemistry and pharmacy and physics. So we have this great track record to build on, and to have these young people to go into their careers in health careers, but to start to focus on public health.

Getting out into the community and learning public health early on, in undergraduate.

Most surgeon generals (sic), most political appointees, will go to large academic health centers or medical schools. I wanted to come to a small liberal arts college, to be able to have that hands-on, direct impact early on in their careers, even before they go to graduate school, before they go to medical school, and get them out in the communities, learning what it’s like to make a difference.

Tavis: You come from a poor community; many of us do. Tell me quickly your sense of how and why it is that poverty is still so linked to health, or lack thereof; healthcare in this country.

Benjamin: The social determinants of health play a major impact on the health status of individuals, of the community, and it’s just as important as smoking is. So studies have shown that – published studies have shown that we have to start to change those dynamics, and giving people access to healthcare is only the beginning.

We have to change those social determinants. Education is one of the major parts. People who have a – young people who have a high school education, high school degree, have two and a half times living longer than those who don’t, and those with a college degree even longer.

Diseases like diabetes and hypertension are more prevalent in those less educated than those educated. We have studies to show that.

Tavis: You’re no longer Surgeon General, so now I can ask you this question. What do you make of all of the politics, the fighting, the pushback on Obamacare?

Benjamin: Well, Obamacare, it has become a political football, but it has some really good parts. We have the parts about getting the insurance reform, but we also have those prevention efforts that are in there, like that national prevention strategy is there.

Those parts don’t get talked about as much. Here at Xavier, for example, we’re trying to develop young people who will go into health careers to help solve some of those problems in the future.

Tavis: Before I let you go, we’re going to do, later in this program, a tribute to Nelson Mandela. We know that our presidents, present and former, are on their way to South Africa for this service. Of course in a few days they’ll have the state funeral.

I note that back in the ’90s you were the recipient of the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights from the Kaiser Family Foundation. There is a U.S. recipient; there is a South African recipient.

What did it mean for you then to receive such a high honor that bore the name or bears the name of one Nelson Mandela?

Benjamin: Well it was such an honor, and he’s such an inspiration for all of us, along the same lines as Xavier’s founder, Mother Catherine Drexel. Basically, the social justice of leadership is so important, and he fit in.

So to have that, having won that award carries a great responsibility, and to be an inspiration by doing. He showed us by his actions what leadership is really about, and so we want to try to emulate him, to carrying on those type of leadership skills just by your actions and leadership in action.

In South Africa, the constitution that was developed when President Mandela was in office was that healthcare was a right, and that’s the first country that put healthcare in its constitution.

Tavis: Regina Benjamin, good to have you on the program. Thank you for your time this evening.

Benjamin: Thank you.

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Last modified: December 11, 2013 at 1:10 pm