A conversation with Kenneth Moritsugu, MD, MPH, FACPM, FAADE

August 14, 2022

6 minute read

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Diabetes occupies an important place in the professional and personal life of Kenneth Moritsugu, MD, MPH, FACPM, FAADE, Retired Rear Admiral for the United States Public Health Service and former Surgeon General of the United States.

Moritsugu has held a number of diabetes-related positions, from vice president of global strategic affairs for diabetes at Johnson & Johnson after his retirement from the US public health service to chairman of the organization’s board of directors at nonprofit Children with Diabetes. In 2013, Moritsugu joined the board of what was then the American Association of Diabetes Educators, now the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists, as the first elected board member. ADCES honored Moritsugu again in 2019 when he was made an honorary member of the organization.

Kenneth Moritsugu, MD, MPH, FACPM, FAADE

Moritsugu is a Retired Rear Admiral for the United States Public Health Service and former Surgeon General of the United States.

Moritsugu’s understanding of diabetes goes beyond his career. He has lived with type 1 diabetes for more than 20 years, having been diagnosed with the disease at age 55.

“There is an emerging variant called latent autoimmune diabetes of adulthood, and I developed diabetes later in life,” Moritsugu said. “Throughout my career, I have always emphasized putting the patient at the center of everything we do. At the same time, I was very involved in diabetes, personally and professionally.

Moritsugu’s dedication to the field of diabetes has been recognized with another honor from ADCES. On Sunday at ADCES22, Moritsugu received the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Healio recently spoke with Moritsugu about his long and distinguished career, the advice he has for young people interested in entering the medical field, and what the Lifetime Achievement Award means to him.

Healio: When did you decide to go into medicine and what attracted you to this field?

Moritsugu: My interest in medicine really started when I was a young child. My mother was a nurse receptionist in a primary care doctor‘s office. I spent a lot of time with her at work. I was also exposed to a primary care physician before family medicine was all the rage. He was otherwise known as a general practitioner in the state of Hawaii and in the community. I saw people in pain and was positively impressed by her ability to help them. Therefore, during my university years, I decided to focus on medicine.

Healio: Is there a defining moment in your career that really stood out to you?

Moritsugu: I have had the privilege of serving in many different capacities. I spent 37 years in the uniform of the United States Public Health Service and retired as the Acting Surgeon General of the United States. This career in uniformed service was followed by a civilian career in the private sector, where I was Vice President of the Diabetes Medical Devices Company of Johnson & Johnson. But over the course of my career, I would go back to the opportunity I had when I was assigned to the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, where I was Deputy Bureau Director as well as Medical Director. During this time, the position really encompassed overseeing the entire Federal Bureau of Prisons system, not only in medicine and health care, but also in food services, nutrition, and environmental health.

When I arrived at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the health care was adequate. But I was very concerned that the general public viewed people who worked in prison systems as the dregs of the health care professions, that they couldn’t find jobs elsewhere, and that was the reason for which they found themselves in the prison system. If anything, I found it to be the exact opposite. You really had to be a comprehensive health care professional and provider to be able to work within a health care system that balances public health and public safety.

To that end, at the beginning of my mandate, I said that we were going to show the world what we are. I established a policy by which I said that we will take each of our hospitals and our ambulatory care centers and we will obtain accreditation from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations (JCAHO) , which was a big shortcoming, because at that time, only our hospitals were accredited.

About 3 or 4 years later, we were very proud to say that 100% of the clinics and hospitals in the Federal Bureau of Prisons were accredited, and 30% of them were accredited with honors, which is significantly higher than that of the population at large. So not only did we say we provide community standard care, we proved it.

Healio: What was it like serving as Acting Surgeon General of the United States?

Moritsugu: When I started my medical studies at George Washington University, I was not really focused on the type of specialty in which I was going to evolve. During my first year, I was introduced to a course in public health and preventive medicine. I was very interested not only in helping individuals, but also in broadening my perspective and helping communities and societies with public health. This is why I moved from clinical internal medicine to preventive medicine and made a career in administrative medicine in public health.
the holder is expected to be non-political and held to the standard of providing information consistent with the best scientific and factual data in a manner understandable to the general public.

I was fortunate to have been selected as Assistant Surgeon General and served in that position for 9 years which I believe is the longest serving Assistant Surgeon General in the history of the States Public Health Service -United. I was lucky enough to be selected by David SayoudearMD, PhD the surgeon general in the early 1990s. After him, there was an interregnum where I was the acting surgeon general between Satcher and his successor, Richard CarmonaMD, MPH. I was asked to stay on as Assistant Surgeon General with Carmona. At the end of his 4 year term, I became the Acting Surgeon General again, and remained in that position for almost 2 years until I decided it was time to retire and give to others the possibility of occupying these positions.

Healio: What advice would you give to a student interested in healthcare today?

Moritsugu: The first thing I would suggest to a student who considers health and health care as a profession is to go back to the ancient Greek saying: “Be true to yourself. Sincerely understand what your own motivation is. Is it to serve? Is it to help? Is it ego? Is it economical? Any goal is a worthwhile goal as long as you can fully appreciate and understand that this is where you came from.

Then the question is which path is best for you to achieve what you want to achieve with what you have at that time. The decision you make today when you bring home $5,000 a year washing cars will be very different from the decision you make 30 years in a neurosurgical practice where you bring home a few extra zeros before the decimal point. . .

On top of that, do you enjoy the ego satisfaction of being treated as a doctor, or are you more inclined to say, “I’m here to help, not necessarily to be treated as a doctor?” This goes back to my original comment, be real, because the worst thing that can happen is if you’re really interested in functioning a certain way, but you say, I’m going to take it too far and earn the medical degree , you can be unhappy from a service point of view, from an ego point of view, and from a financial point of view.

I talk to a number of students from time to time, and I say if you are really interested in serving people, how much time and effort and how much money are you willing to invest to achieve this? If time is tight, why are you interested in doing 4 years of medical school career and 3 years of residency program before you even start reaching a patient as an independent care provider, as opposed to to get a master’s degree and work as a medical assistant? Or get a 4 year Bachelor of Science in Nursing, take 2 years to get a Masters in Nursing and maybe be a Nurse Practitioner and then be able to get into service?

Healio: What was your reaction when you learned that you would be the recipient of the ADCES Lifetime Achievement Award?

Moritsugu: That means everything to me. As others have said, there is no better recognition than being recognized by your peers.

Throughout my journey, I felt like I could serve, I could help people, and I could help patients. From this point of view, do not expect anything and you will never be disappointed. When I received the call from the President of ADCES saying, “Ken, we would like you to receive and accept the Lifetime Achievement Award”, I can tell you that I was thrilled, I was humbled and I was also very proud. It’s all about balancing perceptions and responses and realizing that service has its rewards.

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