Gupta still works as neurosurgeon at hospital and as host of medical show on CNN, but some critics question his ties to drug companies
WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama’s reported choice for surgeon general, CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, could bring a dose of star power to a job that hasn’t had that much clout in decades.
Gupta, who grew up in the Detroit area, doesn’t just play a doctor on TV, he’s a neurosurgeon who still scrubs in part-time in one of the nation’s toughest hospitals when he’s not on CNN assignments that have taken him from Hurricane Katrina to Iraq. He also has co-hosted a health "network" that beams feel-good advice on TVs in clinic waiting rooms around the country — one that has drawn some criticism for drug-company promotion.
The surgeon general doesn’t set health policy, but the office can be an effective bully pulpit, and a major report aimed at Congress just last month called for "a more prominent and powerful role for the surgeon general who … should be a strong advocate for the American people."
Past surgeons general pushed the nation to fight tobacco and AIDS. Having such a well-known TV personality could give the post a reach not seen since the renowned C. Everett Koop, who served under President Ronald Reagan and helped make AIDS a public health issue rather than a moral one — in an era before the 24/7 news cycle.
With the celebrity behind Gupta’s medical credentials, "it’s like a name-brand immediately," said Dr. Michael Johns, chancellor at Emory University in Atlanta, where Gupta, 39, is an assistant professor of neurosurgery.
"If chosen, Dr. Gupta’s communication skills and medical knowledge could be a boon to the new administration’s health system reform efforts," noted Dr. Joseph Heyman, chairman of the American Medical Association’s board.
And in contrast to the grandfatherly Koop, People magazine named the then-single Gupta one of the sexiest men of 2003.
However, a surgeon general would "need to demonstrate skills that are too often missing in medical news on TV: skepticism about the science and a careful analysis of both the benefits and harms of medical care," said Drs. Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.
The pair raised questions about drug-company sponsorship of some programs Gupta hosted in a broader critique of medical media coverage last fall, and on Tuesday, Jan. 7, they urged careful examination of any potential conflicts of interest.
CNN said Obama had approached Gupta about the job but said he would not comment on the discussions.
"Since first learning that Dr. Gupta was under consideration for the surgeon general position, CNN has made sure that his on-air reporting has been on health and wellness matters and not on health care policy or any matters involving the new administration," the cable network said Tuesday.
Two Democrats with knowledge of the discussions over the surgeon general spot said Gupta was under consideration but cautioned a choice has not been made. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media on the matter.
Obama’s transition office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Gupta has made a handful of political donations in recent years, but appears to have stayed out of the 2008 presidential race.
To take the job, he’d have to give up a lucrative media-and-medical empire. Gupta hosts "House Call" on CNN, contributes reports to CBS News, and writes a column for Time magazine, as well as operating and overseeing residents part-time at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, known for its trauma cases.
During the Clinton administration, Gupta was a White House fellow and special adviser to then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Gupta grew up in the Detroit area, the son of parents who moved from India in the 1960s to work at a Ford plant. He earned undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Michigan.
CBS News is a unit of CBS Corp.; CNN is owned by Time Warner Inc.
On the Net: Obama transition: http://www.change.gov.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 9, 2009.