Sullivan, former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary and a founder of the Morehouse School of Medicine, spoke to the graduating class May 5 at Augusta’s James Brown Arena.
“By your individual decisions as health professionals, you will help to determine the cost and effectiveness of our health care system,” he said.
The patients that new graduates treat will be older and more diverse than at any other time in the history of the country. By 2050, the numbers of retirees in America will rise from 37 million to 88 million. By 2042, Caucasians will no longer be a majority. These changes, driven largely by immigration, will impact health care for everyone, Sullivan said.
Older citizens, at higher risk for chronic illness, consume more medical services. And the public health initiatives that Americans enjoy – clean drinking water, childhood vaccinations and good nutrition – do not exist in many countries.
“To remain effective and relevant, you must become more familiar with different cultures, languages and customs,” he said.
Patients may also be less healthy. The nation has grown too sedentary and unhealthy in its eating habits. It is up to medical professionals to educate their patients about preventive measures they can take to ward off illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
“We must do a better job of teaching our citizens about the marvels and mysteries of human biology,” Sullivan said.
This includes helping them to understand and implement improved eating habits, daily exercise and annual medical evaluations. It also means that different kinds of health care practitioners must find ways to work together as a team. If successful, their efforts will change the country.
“Your challenge is to lead that change to a healthier future for our nation,” he said.
Sullivan is Chairman of the Board of the National Health Museum in Atlanta, which aims to improve the health of Americans by enhancing health literacy and advancing healthy behaviors. He also is Chairman of the Washington, D.C.- based Sullivan Alliance to Transform America’s Health Professions.