|U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, M.D., M.B.A., is welcomed by NMA officials during the Opening Ceremony Saturday.
Treating patients in a small fishing village in Alabama may seem like a long way away from being responsible for 300 million Americans. For 18th U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, M.D., M.B.A., the goal has always been the same.
"Whether I'm working with patients or in policy, I've learned that one person can make a difference," said Dr. Benjamin, who delivered the keynote address during the Opening Ceremony.
The opportunity to give the Edward C. Mazique, M.D., Symposium was especially meaningful for Dr. Benjamin, who remarked on the many friends and mentors who looked on Saturday afternoon.
She shared glimpses of her early days in medicine and described what health care reform legislation initiatives will mean for patients and physicians.
She told a heartfelt story about a former patient who endured physical back pain because the patient lacked the means to make her co-payment, to get pain medicine.
Dr. Benjamin stepped out of the office visit and returned with pain meds for Mrs. Smith. "At that moment, Mrs. Smith's eyes filled with tears and she said, ‘Dr. Benjamin, I'm so embarrassed. I didn't want you to do that.' At that moment, I knew I took her dignity from her," Dr. Benjamin said. "We talk about cultural competency all the time, but it has nothing to do with the color of someone's skin."
Mrs. Smith, who waxed floors in an elementary school, is one of Dr. Benjamin's inspirations. "We need to be the voice of our patients," she said. " As ‘America's Doctor,' I try to provide Americans with the best scientific information for how to live healthier lives, and now I have 300 million new patients."
Wellness and prevention interventions are the foundation of her work. Earlier this year, she released The Surgeon General's Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation. With First Lady Michelle Obama, she helped launch Let's Move!, a campaign to solve the problem of childhood obesity in one generation.
Dr. Benjamin's other priorities include improved treatments for HIV/AIDS, mental illness, and domestic and random violence, as well as a focus on breastfeeding and tobacco cessation.
She drew resounding applause when she remarked that health care reform legislation had brought about the National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities at the National Institutes of Health. The audience repeated their reaction when Dr. Benjamin said that as of Sept. 23 insurance companies could no longer charge co-payments for many preventive services, such as mammograms and pap smears.
The National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council, created by the Affordable Care Act, allows for historic funding for prevention and wellness. Dr. Benjamin leads the council and will fill its advisory group.
"We hope to move this system of health care from one that treats to the sick one that is based on wellness interventions," she said. "We need to change how we do things, which we've been preaching for years. I really need your help. You as individual physicians and we as the NMA can help keep our country much more healthy and much more fit."