Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is, arguably, the most powerful physician in the United States.
The 38-year-old Harvard-trained doctor is a year-and-a-half into a four-year term as the face of public health in the United States. He’s made emotional well-being, walkable communities, and preventive care a priority. Later this fall, he’ll release the first-ever Surgeon General’s Report on substance abuse.
Murthy visited the STAT offices in Boston on Thursday to talk about his fears about the Zika virus, what it would be like to tackle gun violence with Donald Trump in the Oval Office, and what “Love Actually” taught him about medicine.
The following is a condensed version of the conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
How worried are you about Zika?
I’m worried about Zika. I think this is a significant public health threat that our country faces, but it is one I believe we can overcome if we have the right partnerships, the right resources, and if everyone does their part. And those are ifs … [because] we don’t have a sustainable source of Zika response funding.
And that piece concerns me because I think we’re coming to the point where we are going to run out of funds to support the Zika response. And that’s gonna happen right as we’re hitting mosquito season in the United States. … I’m concerned because of what we know, but also because of the potential that we will discover more harmful effects of the Zika virus.
You’ve made emotional well-being one of your priorities as surgeon general. How do you maintain that for yourself?
I really wish my wife was here; she’s actually one of my sources of emotional well-being, to be honest.
I meditate twice a day; that’s one of my strategies for re-centering myself. … Just spending quality time with [my wife] is a very powerful antidote to stress. And we actually do a lot of the emotional well-being exercises together. So we meditate together every morning before we go to work. We take walks together, to make sure that our physical activity is also a chance to relax and catch up together.
And finally, sleep … I’m happy to say I sleep a lot more after meeting [my wife] than I did beforehand. I try to get on average seven hours a night. I’ll be honest, earlier in life I didn’t have the best habits around sleep. I would sleep very little. I had a sort of hero complex around sleep, I was like, ‘I don’t need to sleep because I’m strong and can stay up and still get stuff done,’ and all that usual macho BS, which usually doesn’t really pan out.
Rumor has it — from a press release saying this — that “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is your favorite movie. Is that actually true?
“E.T.” is not my favorite movie.
It is a movie I like a lot, but it’s not my favorite movie. There are two movies I wrote down. I’m going to give you two. It’s a bit of a dodge, but I’ll give you two. And one of them is a recent movie that came out, “The Martian,” with Matt Damon, our local Boston hero. And the other is an older movie with Hugh Grant, called “Love Actually.”
“The Martian” I love because it’s about the power of science and where science can take us, but it’s also about this powerful bond between people and about what you can do when you are connected with other people and driven by friendship and by love. The fact that those astronauts came back, that they defied direct orders from NASA and they went back to Mars to get Matt Damon — they took a lot of risks. But they did that because they recognized that at the end of the day, the most important thing that we have in life is each other.
With “Love Actually,” it’s a bit of the same. I’ll go on to further embarrass myself and admit that it’s one of the very few movies I actually own. I’m just digging a hole here.
The reason I enjoy it so much is that it’s about love, as well. Love is the oldest medicine that we have. We focus so much on new drugs and new therapeutics and sometimes in an effort to bring in the new, we forget about the old. That’s true with technology, it’s true with medicine, it’s true with so much else.
We fixate on Facebook and forget the importance of face-to-face conversation. We text people and forget the importance of hearing their voice. But when it comes to healing, love is a powerful source of healing. As powerful as our medicines are, when a patient doesn’t have a source of love in their life, it makes it difficult to heal. These old medicines, of which love is the most important, are very powerful.
Police brutality has resonated with medical students, with the “White Coats for Black Lives” movement taking off. What’s the role of the next generation of physicians in addressing systemic racism?
I believe the next generation of physicians cannot be content solely to operate in clinics and hospitals. We have to be leaders in our communities. Transportation policies, housing policies, education policies, all have an impact on health. … And my hope is that the next generation of leaders will see a role for themselves not only in health care delivery settings, but also in the community as public health leaders.
[You need to] recognize, if there is systemic racism that’s harming your patients, that that’s our job to speak up about it. If there are schools in our community that are serving unhealthy food to children, then you need to speak out about that. If there are neighborhoods where people can’t walk and be physically active because of concerns of violence and safety, then we have to speak up about it.
The public looks at physicians as people who have power and have a voice. Physicians look at themselves as disempowered. … This is very striking, but the discrepancy is real.
What can you do about guns as a public health issue?
I got into some trouble for saying gun violence is a public health issue. A little bit of trouble. But you know, I was stating what I think is the obvious, and I think most people in the country understand, which is that far too many people die from gun violence. And in my book, every single death from gun violence is a tragedy because it was preventable. It’s unacceptable.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have such different perspectives on issues like this. What’s your sense of how either of them would be in terms of the issues you’re so passionate about?
Whoever the next president is will be my boss, so to speak, and my hope is to be able to work with the next president to address these issues because I think they’re incredibly important. I don’t think anybody would deny that gun violence is a problem in our country. I don’t think anybody would deny that substance use is a problem.
Regardless of which party the next president is from, my hope is to be able to work with them to implement common sense solutions, and to listen to what communities are doing.
Given that Trump is endorsed by the NRA, are you confident that you would see eye to eye with him on gun violence?
I would want to sit down and talk to the next president about how we could work together, because I have found there’s nothing that beats that one-on-one conversation to determine what you can actually achieve in terms of a partnership.
If you had that one-on-one talk with Donald Trump, what burning questions would you have for him?
To be completely honest with you, I don’t spend a lot of time listening to what the candidates are saying because I’m focused on my day job. Whoever the next president is, I’m going to make every effort to sit down and talk with them about [the major issues in health care]. Because the thing is, I don’t want to make assumptions about what either of them believes based on what is reported or what is told to me second- or thirdhand. It’s important to have that direct conversation.
I’ll tell you with my experience with members of Congress. I know that congressional approval ratings are low. I know there are many people who are worried our government is not working. If that’s what I used to base my understanding about members of Congress on, then I might conclude that there’s no point in actually working with any of them, and that I should just go out and do my own thing.