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Q&A with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy: Community Health, Measles, and Teleportation

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy answers a few questions on public health, his goals as Surgeon General, and the talent he'd most like to have.

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy

He’s treated thousands of patients in the U.S. and helped people around the globe. He’s trained students to become doctors, founded a nonprofit to combat HIV/AIDS, practices yoga daily, and keeps unflavored almond milk in his fridge. At 37, he is now one of the youngest Americans — and the first Indian American — to serve as the Surgeon General of the United States. 

He’s America’s doctor — and he stopped by the White House recently to answer a few questions that you might want to know the answer to, like: What does he want to do as Surgeon General? What should you do to stay healthy? Will he ever dunk on a NBA-regulation basketball hoop? 

Age-old questions. Check out his answers below: 

1. What made you want to become a doctor? 

Well, my parents were my original inspiration for going into medicine. My father's a primary care doctor and my mother helped set up and run his office when we were children. And as a kid, I spent a lot of time in my dad's office and got to see how he and my mother worked really hard to take care of patients, but also build these wonderful relationships with them over time. I found those relationships to be really inspiring and I wanted to do something like that when I grew up — and that's one of the reasons I went into medicine.

2. What do you hope to achieve as the Surgeon General?

[...] The things I want to do — you know, there are many — but I would say that my priorities are, first to modernize how we communicate from the office, to make sure that we are getting the best possible information about health to all sectors of the population using modern technology and modern approaches.

Hear what else Dr. Murthy wants to accomplish during his tenure: 

3. What’s the first thing you do when you walk into your office each morning?

I take a deep breath — and each day that I walk in, there is always something new that comes up. We have a schedule but there are always things that are added to the schedule. You know, I have the great privilege of meeting with very interesting people, hearing about great ideas all day long, working with our incredible staff to build and then implement campaigns around health. It's incredibly exciting work, but it's a busy time.

So, I walk in, I take a deep breath, I take stock of what we have before us, and I try to remind myself at the beginning of the day about who I want to be for the rest of the day. You know, I try to ground myself when I walk into the office and, yeah, that's something I hope to keep doing, actually, throughout my tenure as Surgeon General. 

4. What do you think is the best advice every American should follow when it comes to his or her health?

There are three ideas that come to mind when I think of what everyone can do to make sure they lead a healthier life. One is to stay active. We have in our workplaces, in our homes, we have many reasons to be inactive, and so sometimes it's a challenge to make sure that we're moving. But making sure that we're moving — whether that's taking time to work out in the gym, or whether that's making the choice to take the stairs or to walk to work whenever you can — those are important choices because that activity adds up. [...]

You'll definitely want to hear what else our nation's doctor thinks you can do to stay healthy:

5. How is public health different from personal health, and what are some ways Americans can help protect our public health? 

Public health is about the health of a community, it's about the health of the nation. And one thing that we know is that, while it's important for individuals to take care of their own health, we need to make sure that we're also doing our part to lift up each other. To make sure that, as a community and as a country, we are becoming healthier and that we are becoming stronger. Public health is about making sure that we're giving everyone the best possible chance at health. 

There are a number of things that individuals can do to ensure that not only are they getting healthier but that the country is getting healthier. One of these actually involves protecting yourself, not only from illness but also protecting other people from getting sick. And that's why, during flu season, we were out on the road talking a lot about the importance of getting vaccinated against the flu and we've also been recently talking about the importance of ensuring that you and that your kids are immunized against diseases like measles. 

6. Right now, several states have reported a case of the measles. This is a disease that many had thought was no longer a threat to their health. Why do you think these cases are popping up?

I'm very concerned about the outbreak of measles that we've seen. There are two factors at play here. One is that we've seen an uptick globally in cases of measles and that means, given international travel, that there are more opportunities for measles to come here to the United States. But the second thing that we've seen is pockets in the United States of people who are not vaccinated and we've seen growth in those pockets. And my concern is that if we continue to see growing pockets of people who are not vaccinated, then we allow measles and other illnesses as well a foothold in our country and we allow them to then spread.

The most important thing people can do to protect themselves against measles is to get vaccinated. The good news about measles is that while it is one of the most contagious illnesses that we know about, and while it can have serious consequences — like pneumonia, inflammation of the brain, and even death — it is an illness that can be prevented with the vaccine. The vaccine is safe, it's effective, and my recommendation to every parent out there is to please vaccinate your children. 

Listen to Dr. Murthy's advice on how to protect yourself against the measles, then share it with everyone who needs to know:

Follow the Surgeon General on Instagram

7. What’s the most memorable day you’ve had on the job so far?

There have been so many great days that we've had — so many incredible moments, so many great people that we've met, communities that we've visited. I will say one moment that stands out in particular is, a couple weeks ago, I had the chance to travel to Atlanta and welcome back one of our teams of public health service commission corps officers who had traveled to Liberia to provide care for Ebola patients there — and specifically for health care workers. And it was an extraordinary experience to see, you know, over 70 of our officers who had spent over two months abroad — working incredibly hard away from their families. 

To be able to welcome them back was just an extraordinary experience and it reminded me of, one, the fact that we have extraordinarily committed men and women in this country who are working very hard every day to keep our country safe. But it also reminded me that in times of great need around the world — and Ebola was one of those times — that the world can rely on America and the American people to help and to make sure that all countries are healthier and that they are working together to make sure that we are fighting challenges such as Ebola. 

8. Who is the most interesting person you've ever met? 

[...] He was a farmer in a small village in India and his family was very poor — they didn't have a lot of resources. His mother died when he was 10. He didn't have a lot — and to go from working as a farmer in a small village in India to then being a successful doctor in Miami was a huge amount of progress that he made in his life. And I think about that. [...]

Hear the full story of the man -- and woman -- who continue to inspire Dr. Murthy in the work he does every day: 

9. What talent or superpower would you most like to have? 

This is a great question. I … I would love to have the ability to dunk on a regulation basketball rim. That would be … It's a dream I've had my entire life. Haven't been able to do it, I haven't lost hope. Still working on my vertical. But one day I'll get there. 

But if I don't, if I'm not able to ever dunk, the ability to be able to teleport actually would be great. You know, there are a lot of places in the world I would love to see. There are lot of friends I have spread out across the country that I would love to see as well. And to be able to reduce transit time and see them on the flip of a switch would be fantastic. So, dunking or teleporting — I'll take either one. 

A good question and a great answer. Listen here: