ATLANTA - The new U.S. Surgeon General on Thursday called for stepped-up efforts in increasing the number of minority physicians.
In what was one of her first speeches to a large crowd since she was sworn in Nov. 3, Dr. Regina Benjamin noted that the proportion of U.S. physicians who are minorities is only 6 percent — the same proportion as a century ago.
"There's something wrong with that," said Benjamin, speaking at a conference on health disparities at a hotel in downtown Atlanta.
By contrast, minorities account for about 34 percent of the U.S. population, according to 2008 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In a 27-minute speech, Benjamin told health leaders in the audience to encourage young minorities to pursue careers in medicine or other ambitions.
Benjamin, 53, is widely respected for being the founder and savior of a rural clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., that was wiped out three times by fire and hurricanes. She also was the first black woman to head a state medical society.
She is a native of Daphne, Ala., but has strong ties to Georgia. She attended Atlanta's Morehouse School of Medicine and completed her residency in family medicine at the Medical Center of Central Georgia. She is a member of Morehouse's Board of Trustees, and counts Dr. David Satcher — a Morehouse administrator and former surgeon general — as a mentor.
Benjamin has not said what her priorities will be during her four-year term. Some health policy experts have predicted she might become a leading voice on national health care reform, but she made only a brief reference to the topic in Thursday's speech.
The surgeon general is a government health educator sometimes called "the nation's doctor." It at times has been a high-profile position, such as in the 1980s, when Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop became the government's leading spokesman on the emerging AIDS epidemic.
The post has faded into relative obscurity in recent years. Last year, both the Institute of Medicine and Trust for America's Health called for the surgeon general to play a more prominent and powerful role.