When President Barack Obama tapped Dr. Regina Benjamin, a rural Alabama family physician, to serve as U.S. Surgeon General, she likes to joke that her client base went overnight from several hundred to nearly 300 million.
Benjamin, an alumna of historically Black Xavier University of Louisiana and Morehouse School of Medicine, was busy tending to the needs of her diverse patient group for 23 years as head of the La Batre Rural Health Clinic. Now, she is just as busy in her new capacity helping the Obama administration devise and promote healthy living initiatives. As Surgeon General in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Benjamin has the official rank of vice admiral, overseeing the operational command of 6,500 uniformed health officers around the world.
As Benjamin approached the Nov. 3 anniversary of her first year in office, she paused for an interview with Diverse to share her views on a range of issues.
“Prevention is my priority,” says Benjamin. Her efforts range from stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS, a topic she says that doesn’t generate enough discussion in the African-American community, to promoting breastfeeding.
“If babies are exclusively breast fed the first six months,” Benjamin says, “they are less likely to become obese. Breastfeeding is lower in the African-American community.” On other topics, she said the following:
Diverse: You have been telling audiences across the country that “exercise is the new medicine.” What do you mean by that?
RB: Exercise is just as important as medicine. You can get as many benefits from exercise as you can many pills. It’s one of the ideas we want doctors to prescribe.
Diverse: What does the new federal health care law offer minorities?
RB: A lot, for everybody, not just minorities. As of Sept. 23, new insurers must cover the cost of medical screening for preventive services. Now, they can’t charge a co-pay (which impedes screenings for lower-income people). Kids can stay on a parent’s insurance until age 26. Also, kids can’t be denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition. My big issue is preventive medicine because (people of color) spend more of our cash income on health care.
Diverse: How are young people of color responding to the appeals to live healthier lives?
RB: I think we are doing better. I want to encourage them to continue to do well. In low-income communities, the issue is food deserts (the lack of grocery stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables). They don’t have refrigerated units for fresh foods. The role of the government is to have incentives for these stores to come to these (low-income) communities. You’re starting to see a few refrigerated units in some places.
Diverse: Why is there a need for diverse doctors?
RB: I was on the Sullivan Commission (a panel headed by former Surgeon General Louis Sullivan). We found that, while 30 percent of the population is minority, less than 7 percent of doctors and other health care professionals are a minority. If you are a minority child and see a person of color in one of these jobs, you say, ‘I can be one of those.’ Having (diverse doctors) in the system helps. The other part is having that point of view at the table is healthy; bringing those understandings of cultural differences.
Diverse: If you could give college students three pieces of advice about their health, what would you tell them?
RB: Health is personal and you should take leadership of your health. Learn as much as you can about yourself and your family. Second, try to live a healthy lifestyle. Exercise. Enjoy yourself and be happy. Third, enjoy being healthy. You’re not doing it because it’s a drag. It won’t last. Do it because it’s fun.
Diverse: How are you bringing health awareness to people?
RB: Walking the nation with the city walks events like the one we just did in Mobile (Ala.). Some people don’t realize health disparities exist. They are beginning to understand it. Also, the new health bill creates a National Prevention Council of which I will be chair. It’s made up of 18 executives and Cabinet members and will include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department. Its initial strategy is to establish a national prevention strategy; to change the (national) conversation to a more positive conversation about health and wellness. The report is due in March. It’s hard to have a healthy individual if your community is not healthy.