The United States Surgeon General is the head of the United States Public Health Service, a branch of the government which is responsible for promoting public health both through direct intervention and through the use of policy. The Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a uniformed service of the United States, provides the Surgeon General with a literal army of public health workers. Because the Public Health Service is uniformed, the Surgeon General has a military ranking, as do members of the Corps, although they are classified as non-combatants.
The origins of the position of Surgeon General lie in the early days of the United States, when a public health commissioner was appointed to oversee the health of the American military. In 1871, a formal Surgeon General position was created, and the work of the Surgeon General was extended to include the civilian population. The Surgeon General works within the Department of Health and Human Services, reporting to the Assistant Secretary for Health.
Surgeon Generals are appointed by the President of the United States, and confirmed in a Senate hearing. One of the most important roles is as a policy advocate. The Surgeon General works with the Assistant Secretary for Health and the President to promote sound health policies for the United States. Working with the Office of the Surgeon General, this appointed official also reviews emerging trends in health care, examines the results of studies, and occasionally issues rulings and warnings such as the prominent Surgeon General's Warning found on tobacco products.
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The Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which works under the supervision of the Surgeon General, provides a variety of services ranging from disaster response to product safety inspections. Members of the Corps also engage in health research, health education, disaster preparedness, and policymaking. As members of a uniformed service, they can also be “loaned” to other uniformed services as needed, and they are potentially liable under the rules of military justice, even though they are non-combatants.
While the Surgeon General could be viewed as a figurehead due to his or her role as a spokesperson, heading the Public Health Service is no small task in a nation the size of the United States. The Surgeon General must be able to respond to emerging health threats in numerous locations, and being able to work comfortably with representatives of other health services and organizations is critical, as the Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration, and other organizations all play a role in administering healthcare to Americans.