• Dr. Jerome Adams, former U.S. Surgeon General, director of health equity initiatives at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind. 
  • Kelsey Ryan, executive director, Association for Health Care Journalists (facilitator)

By Molly Castle Work

Jerome Adams, M.D, former U.S. Surgeon General, sat down with the Association of Health Care Journalists’ executive director Kelsey Ryan to discuss his tenure and the importance of promoting nuanced conversations around health care. 

As surgeon general under the Trump administration, Adams said he was responsible for helping the public understand health threats, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic. He has championed a range of issues, issuing calls to action around opioid overdoses, maternal mortality rates and e-cigarette use. 

Adams, born and raised in Indiana, said that as a child, he never could have imagined that he’d make it to the White House, much less become a doctor. Adams said he didn’t meet a Black doctor for many years and stressed the importance of representation in the medical field. 

He did eventually become a doctor — an anesthesiologist — and his experience working for former Vice President Mike Pence when he was governor of Indiana, set him on the track to his appointment as surgeon general in 2017. 

Adams shared with the audience that his passion for medicine and health care equity stems from his own experience with severe asthma. When he was 8 years old, he almost died during an asthma attack and was flown to Washington D.C. because his rural community didn’t have treatments readily available. 

“Even though I didn’t know about health inequities when I was 8 years old, I knew how it was impacting my life,” Adams said. “That's what pushed me to pursue opportunities to be able to make a difference for people who don't have the resources they need to be able to make good and healthy choices.”

Later in the conversation, Ryan asked him about some of the blowback he has received for early COVID-19 decisions. Adams acknowledged that some of his earlier comments around mask usage, for example, have since been proved wrong, but he explained that the science was constantly changing and his decisions were based on the science available at the time. 

Adams also defended his tenure as surgeon general, arguing that he was often judged unfairly because of his association with the Trump administration, especially on social media where information was often shared without context. Adams stressed that health care information, especially around COVID-19, is nuanced and often misrepresented on social media where brevity is lauded. 

“It’s hard to get out information when it's framed by Tweets, page clicks and SEO headlines,” Adams said.  

Molly Castle Work is the investigative reporter for the Post Bulletin, a newspaper in Rochester, Minn. She was a 2023 AHCJ-Great Lakes Health Journalism Fellow.