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Surgeon General nominee plans to tackle mistrust in science along with taming the pandemic

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President Biden's pick for Surgeon General, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is awaiting a confirmation vote. He has his eye on improving public trust in science as a key White House adviser on COVID-19. Dr. Tara Narula spoke with Murthy before his hearing.

Video Transcript

- My talk of the table is President Biden's nominee for Surgeon General, who would be the first person to hold the job twice. Dr. Vivek Murthy's experience didn't protect him from critics during his Senate confirmation hearing last week.

RICHARD BURR: Will you be able to effectively communicate the safety and efficacy of vaccines to those Americans who may not agree with your policy or your political views?

DR VIVEK MURTHY: I approach issues like vaccines and all public health issues, first and foremost, as a doctor. I was taught--

- Murthy has also been questioned about potential conflicts of interest from his consulting work related to the pandemic. In that Senate hearing, Murthy was pressed over his political views and his support for stricter gun control.

MIKE BRAUN: Do you think guns present a public health emergency?

DR VIVEK MURTHY: I think that gun violence, like any other form of violence, is a concern to me as a doctor. But I'll tell you that my focus, Senator, is not on this issue. It is, and if I'm confirmed, it will be on COVID and on mental health and substance use disorders.

- You know, well-being was a big point of his. Senior medical correspondent Dr. Tara Narula spoke exclusively with Murthy before that hearing. Tara, good morning to you.

DR TARA NARULA: Good morning, Tony. If confirmed, Murthy says he would focus on the growing mental health impacts of COVID-19. The number of Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression has quadrupled during the pandemic to 4 in 10 adults. And President Biden has asked Murthy to take on an additional mission to restore the public's trust in science and medicine.

PRESIDENT BIDEN: One of the reasons doc I asked you to do this, when you speak, people listen. I mean that sincerely. It's a really, really important thing to be communicated now.

DR TARA NARULA: Dr. Vivek Murthy knows gaining Americans trust will be more challenging this time around.

DR VIVEK MURTHY: One of the things that concerns me the most is how public trust has been so depleted. During this past year, people have become more cynical, more concerned, more suspicious about whether the people who are supposed to look out for them are actually looking out for them.

DR TARA NARULA: Where have we gone wrong in the past?

DR VIVEK MURTHY: You always will have challenges during pandemic responses. When people think you're hiding things from them, that doesn't go well. But I think who delivers a message matters, too. We need to have experts and scientists in front of the cameras, going directly to communities, speaking directly to them, as opposed to having their knowledge or their points of view filtered through the lens of politics.

DR TARA NARULA: Are you prepared to disagree with President Biden, if necessary?

DR VIVEK MURTHY: He always says, challenge me, tell me the truth, even if I don't like it.

DR TARA NARULA: Why should Americans trust you to do this job for us?

DR VIVEK MURTHY: So I think my job is to, number one, to be open, honest with people, to bring them the right information, to show up, first of all, and to listen.

DR TARA NARULA: It's a lesson Murthy learned from his parents. After they emigrated from India, his father practiced family medicine in Florida. His mother managed the clinic.

DR VIVEK MURTHY: What they taught me was that one of the most powerful tools that we have for healing is our ability to show up, to be fully present, to listen to what someone has to say.

DR TARA NARULA: To stay connected during the pandemic, Murthy and his wife moved their family in with his parents.

- On the ladder.

DR TARA NARULA: Back in Miami, where boyhood feelings of isolation had a profound impact.

DR VIVEK MURTHY: I struggled a lot with loneliness throughout my childhood. And I sometimes faked having a stomachache. I haven't really told my parents about that to this day. Because I didn't want to go to school, because I was scared about being alone again on the playground. So I know what it feels like to be lonely. You know, after I left the position of surgeon general, I went through a long period of feeling unmoored, disconnected from community, unsure what my purpose was.

DR TARA NARULA: As Surgeon General under President Obama, Murthy worked to destigmatize mental health by talking about it. Last year, he published a book about the power of social connection, just as the coronavirus left many Americans isolated.

DR VIVEK MURTHY: The rise in depression, in anxiety, in suicide that we've seen during this pandemic have been staggering and deeply concerning. Because, even before the pandemic, we were struggling with a very, very high rate of mental illness, including among our children.

DR TARA NARULA: What are your biggest concerns for this generation that's growing up under the cloud of COVID?

DR VIVEK MURTHY: I think that we will be learning over the years ahead just how deeply this pandemic has affected our children. We've got to study what's happening to our kids so that we can build the right strategies to ultimately address the fallout that the pandemic has created for our children.

DR TARA NARULA: If confirmed, Murthy says he will push for increased insurance reimbursement for mental health care and to integrate it into primary care, goals that he says are within reach.

DR VIVEK MURTHY: We know a lot of what we need to do. We just aren't doing it. We have, for example, programs that we could be investing in in schools to help provide mental health counseling to kids, to detect symptoms of mental illness early. We can train more mental health providers. But perhaps most importantly, Tara, what we have to do is have a very different conversation about mental health in our country.

People feel embarrassed to talk about the fact that they're struggling. I just want to say very clearly from the outset that if you are struggling with your mental health, that does not mean that you are broken. What it means is that you're a human being having a human experience, one that many of us have been going through during this pandemic. And many will experience long after the pandemic is over.

DR TARA NARULA: Dr. Murthy lost seven family members to COVID-19. He says it's important to make meaningful connections and recommends taking 15 minutes a day to talk to a loved one, also being fully present and putting away devices and doing acts of service. Both because it helps others and it reminds us of our own value and self-worth.

- Yeah, Tara, we're all nodding along as he makes those points about mental health. I mean, so important and connectedness really matters. We know you knew him back in medical school, I believe. And he's got a point that he made at the confirmation hearing about healing the nation in part through healing our relationships and building them with one another. Can you tell us about that plan?

DR TARA NARULA: Yes, actually, we know each other from residency. He was my resident. I was his intern. But I think, for Dr. Vivek Murthy, you heard him talk about, and he does talk about programs and public health campaigns and the vaccine and how we're going to heal. But really it comes down to a change in philosophy and culture. And healing starts at that micro level of forging these very tight individual relationships with family and friends.

You know, he said to me, how often do we ask someone, how are you? How often do we see someone in distress and walk away, because we don't want to get sucked into a conversation? When he was surgeon general last time in office, he had a policy that, at their weekly staff meeting, each staff member would stand up and talk about themselves for five minutes.

It's really this concept of being more vulnerable, of being more authentic, of being there for others with compassion and empathy and kindness. It is a change in philosophy that he wants to bring to office and to America.

- All right. I think that's a very good idea. Shawna Thomas, we're going to be standing up at the next staff meeting talking about ourselves.

- She's going to love that.

- That's the new big cheese around here.

- She's going to love that.

- Gayle King first. All right, Dr. Tara Narula, thank you very much. We appreciate it.