U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin wants to make America healthier, one community at a time. Born and raised in Daphne, Ala., she started practicing medicine in the rural shrimp-farming town of Bayou La Batre on Alabama's Gulf Coast in 1987 and founded a family-practice clinic there in 1990. Benjamin provided care to all comers, including patients without health insurance.
Her clinic was destroyed three times in 10 years — by Hurricane Georges in 1998, by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and by a fire in 2006. She rebuilt each time, mortgaging her home and picking up shifts in emergency rooms and nursing homes to earn extra money to keep the clinic running.
Benjamin won a MacArthur fellowship — also known as a "genius grant" — in 2008 for her efforts to translate preventive health research into interventions for her patients and for helping other physicians establish clinics in remote locations all over the country. She became surgeon general in November 2009.
Benjamin visited Los Angeles March 4 to receive the chairman's award at the NAACP Image Awards. She spoke with The Times the morning of the ceremony.
How much is good health up to communities, and how much is up to individuals?
We can't look at health in isolation. It's not just in the doctor's office. It's got to be where we live, we work, we play, we pray. If you have a healthy community, you have a healthy individual.
Which communities are doing this really well?
About a year and a half ago, federal stimulus money went into something called Communities Putting Prevention to Work grants.... Right here in Los Angeles they used one of these grants to create smoke-free parks. If we want kids to go out and play, we want them to have an environment where they aren't exposed to secondhand smoke.
Some communities have used the funds to fight obesity. They have built walking paths, playgrounds — there are a lot of examples. One city has a "walking school bus." Parents put the kids together, walk them to school, pick them up and walk them back.
Some have criticized First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign on the grounds that health-related decisions are a personal matter. You're announcing a new federal prevention policy this spring. Are you anticipating the same kind of reaction?
The whole approach is to help people make healthy choices. The role for government is to make it easier. Government can provide things like incentives for grocery stores to go into communities where there are no grocery stores. But the decision to jump rope or ride a bike or fly a kite — that's an individual's decision.
Why do people resist healthy choices?
I don't think they resist them. People want to be healthy, but it's not easy. We need to make it easier. Fast-food restaurants are not going away, so we need to make sure they start offering healthier options. Not just one or two, but as many healthy options as nonhealthy options.
In January you released the Call to Action to Support Breast-feeding. Why?
Breast-feeding benefits the baby and the mother. We know that a baby that is exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life is less likely to become obese. Mothers who breast-feed have less chance of having breast and ovarian cancer.
But while 75% of women start out breast-feeding, by six months it's less than 13%. Something happens in that six months. What we've found is that there's just not societal support. We need to encourage everyone to make a difference.
How would that happen?
It used to be that family would gather and help teach a new mother how to breast-feed. Today's parents and grandparents themselves may not have breast-fed. So we have to turn to community organizations like lactation groups to help educate the mother.
But the big thing is the workplace. We encourage the workplace to provide support. Don't make the mom feel guilty if she asks for a break to breast-feed or pump. Provide a private room — other than a bathroom. Little things like that can help.
What's your favorite part of this job?
Actually, all of it is pretty fun. Getting to go around the country and meet people and see how many really are interested in health. You'd be surprised how many people just want to be well.