This week’s long delayed confirmation of Dr. Vivek Murthy as the next surgeon general fills a void in our nation’s health leadership and creates an opportunity to refocus the often wayward efforts to help Americans live long, healthy lives.  Murthy is taking office at a critical time when public health leaders are working hard to build a “culture of health” in America. This effort involves a major societal shift and is a movement that Murthy should fully embrace.  

Building a culture of health requires a complete rethinking of the way healthcare is delivered in the United States.  It is a change from reactive medicine (treat you when you are sick) to preventive health (keep you from getting sick).  When you live in a culture of health, exercise is incorporated into everyday activities, good nutritional choices are accessible to all, investments are made in disease prevention research, and companies integrate health into their way of doing business.  Vaccinations for children, support for the mentally ill, and cessation programs for smokers are readily available. The healthy choice becomes the easy choice.   

By continuing to advocate for a culture of health in his new role, Murthy can help elevate Americans to the level of health attained by the citizens of many other nations around the world. Other societies have achieved what America has so far failed to do because other nations place a greater emphasis on the value of services and policies that promote health and prevent disease. And the results from these investments are clear: better health for more people at a lower cost. 

The office of the surgeon general has a powerful voice. This became painfully obvious when the office was vacant as Ebola reached America and the leadership vacuum led to misinformation, panic, and fear. Murthy should use his new voice to make a bold stand for change. He should offer unwavering support for evidence-based health promotion and disease prevention programs. He should help businesses and governments adopt these programs. And he should begin with efforts that impact our most vulnerable neighbors across the nation who live in places where the risk of preventable chronic diseases is unacceptably high.  

We know the old, reactive approach to healthcare doesn’t work. It is time for our nation’s health leaders to unequivocally embrace prevention. By promoting a culture of health,  Murthy can help create a healthier America and positively impact millions of lives. 

Yach is executive director of the Vitality Institute, a New York City based research organization that advocates for greater preventive health measures. He previously served as an executive director and cabinet director at the World Health Organization, the senior vice president of global health and agriculture policy at PepsiCo, and the head of global health at the Rockefeller Foundation.