The surgeon general has little real power and can best lead by example. Dr. Regina Benjamin, picked Monday by President Barack Obama to be "America's doctor," may be just the sort of powerful role model needed to set priorities as health care reform churns through Congress.
She puts patients first. She has focused her practice in an Alabama fishing village on the neediest, and rebuilt her clinic three different times after two hurricanes and fire destroyed it. After Hurricane Katrina battered her building, she drove a truck with mud tires to make house calls wherever her patients were hunkered down.
The winner of a $500,000 MacArthur genius grant, Benjamin is a general practitioner who has spent her entire career tending to the poor and the uninsured. One of the keys of health care reform will be empowering the family doctor, the physician who, like her, knows her patients and their medical histories, provides them with the care they need but also serves as a gatekeeper to fence off unnecessary tests and procedures. Eliminating the current incentives to perform expensive services and then collect the fees, even if the procedures have little proven medical benefit, also will require doctors' cooperation.
Benjamin, the daughter of a maid, has never been about maximizing income. Nor has she turned down patients who couldn't pay, sometimes accepting a bucket of oysters or nothing at all. She has sacrificed, and reforming health care will require some sacrifices and changes in behavior throughout the health care field.
"It should not be this hard for doctors ... to care for their patients," she said after the president introduced her Monday. "It shouldn't be this expensive for Americans to get health care in this country."
The American Medical Association calls her "a true professional who puts her patients first." Few surgeons general as are memorable as C. Everett Koop. But in her own quiet way, Benjamin sets the bar high. Symbols matter, and she can be a powerful force in helping show the way to health care reform.