Surgeon General Nominee Informed by Storms

I met President Obama’s surgeon general nominee Regina M. Benjamin in 2005 in Washington at an AMA  conference for science reporters.

Dr. Regina Benjamin


I recall other speakers, but I vividly remember Dr. Benjamin’s words, which I summarized in a page 1 story for the Dec. 15, 2005, issue of Family Practice News. Her story provides the strongest endorsement I can imagine for the use of electronic medical records.

The AMA conference took place just after Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Benjamin recounted the pain of her patients, many of whom were poor, who had lost even more in the storm. She stopped billing them because, “There’s no point when they don’t have an address.”

As the founder of Bayou La Batre (Ala.) Rural Health Clinic, Dr. Benjamin was used to treating patients too poor to afford medical care but who earned too much to qualify for Medicaid. When she wrote replacement prescriptions for patients who had lost them in the water, “I simply asked for the pharmacist to bill me. I had no idea how I was ever going to pay for this, but … you just do what you need to do.”

In fact, Katrina was not Dr. Benjamin’s first major storm. In 1998, her clinic was destroyed by Hurricane Georges. She had been renting space in a low-lying area when Georges hit and she lost everything. After that, she rebuilt her clinic on higher ground—and on 4-foot stilts. That worked well until Katrina’s 25-foot surge. From her previous experience with Georges, she knew that she needed to empty the office in 48 hours to prevent serious mold. She and her staff removed it everything, leaving nothing but the wooden beams, roof, and ceiling. Paper records were put outside to dry in the sun.

That’s when she knew that electronic medical records were not a luxury but a necessity. “After Hurricane Georges, I knew I wanted to get an electronic health record, but I couldn’t afford it. This time, I can’t afford not to. Even if we have to go into debt, we have to get one because it’s essential for our patients’ quality of care,” she said in 2005.

In Obama’s introduction of Dr. Benjamin as his surgeon general nominee today, he recited her impressive achievements: the first black woman to be named to the AMA’s board of trustees, president of Alabama’s State Medical Association, and a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award. But, he added, “Of all these achievements and experience, none has been more pertinent to today’s challenges or closer to Regina’s heart than the rural health clinic that she has built and rebuilt in Bayou La Batre.” Indeed.

—Miriam E. Tucker (on Twitter: @MiriamETucker)
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