Surgeon General to step down

June 13, 2013 in Medical Technology

U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, MD, has announced plans to step down in July, after four years as the nation’s top voice for public health.

“My goal was to create a grassroots movement, to change our healthcare system from one focused on sickness and disease to a system focused on wellness and prevention,” Benjamin wrote late Wednesday in an email to her staff. “With your help, that movement has begun.”

Benjamin was nominated by President Barack Obama in July 2009, named to the position of Surgeon General and Medical Director in the regular corps of the Public Health Service. She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in October of that year.

During her tenure, Benjamin served as chair the National Prevention Council, established under the Affordable Care Act, which comprises 17 federal departments and seeks to drive better access to care.

Born in Mobile, Ala., Benjamin’s career was shaped in part by her family’s struggles with preventable illness. Her father passed away after battling diabetes and hypertension. Her mother died from lung cancer caused by smoking. She lost her brother to HIV.

“I cannot change my family’s past,” she has said. “I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation’s healthcare and our nation’s health. I want to be sure that no one falls through the cracks as we improve our healthcare system.”

[See also: Surgeon General launches new app challenge]

Prior to being named Surgeon General, Benjamin ran the small Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, on the Gulf Coast of Alabama. It was there that she learned first-hand the peril of keeping medical records on paper.

In 1998, the clinic was severely damaged by Hurricane George; seven years later it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina. Speaking at the American Health Information Management Association annual conference in 2010, Benjamin projected slides showing sopping wet paper records, laid out to dry in the sun. “HIPAA didn’t like that,” she said with a chuckle.

[See also: Surgeon General says EHRs a must]

In 2006, just as it was set to reopen, Benjamin’s clinic was destroyed by fire. Those same paper records were blackened ash. Upon rebuilding, Benjamin said, “I knew we had to find a better way. This time, we had to have an electronic health record.”

Since then, she has been an advocate for health IT as a crucial means to help improve care, increase access and lower costs.

“Regina has served as America’s doctor since 2009 and has impacted the health and lives of Americans across the country. I am deeply grateful for her leadership and service,” wrote Health and Human Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a statement.

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