Dr. Vivek Murthy’s refrigerator in his Brookline apartment, one close friend says, reveals a lot about his priorities outside his busy professional life as a Brigham and Women’s Hospital physician, start-up entrepreneur, and political activist.
The shelves, when they’re not empty, contain foods like unflavored almond milk, raw carrots, and high-protein grains, reflecting a healthy lifestyle that includes the daily practice of yoga. Hanging on the outside of the refrigerator are a wide assortment of photos of those dear to Murthy, as well as wedding and birth announcements of close friends and family.
“He has a deep investment in people,” said Dr. Ali Khan, 29, a close friend who has worked with Murthy — President Obama’s intended nominee as the nation’s surgeon general — to push for many of Obama’s health policy initiatives. “He’s driven by social interaction.”
At 36, Murthy has also strived to use his medical degree to help patients beyond the hospital walls through starting health care companies and nonprofits. His supporters hope that his record stands out as he heads into a potentially difficult confirmation process before the Senate.
On Thursday night, Obama announced that he would nominate Murthy to the four-year post that carries little formal power but can be a bully pulpit for public health issues. A hearing has not been scheduled.
In the nation’s bitter partisan climate, many of Obama’s nominees have been held up for months. Murthy could face some tough questions about his close association with Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which has been hit with criticism over its flawed implementation.
In 2009, Murthy founded Doctors for America, a grass-roots organization of some 16,000 doctors and medical students nationwide that has been a strong advocate of Obama’s signature legislation before and after its passage. Still, some of Obama’s critics say Murthy may get less scrutiny than some other nominees have because the surgeon general is seen as largely a figurehead position.
“People view the surgeon general’s office as about as effective as the Obamacare website, so I don’t think there’s a lot of concern about who’s in the job,” said Barney Keller, a spokesman for Club for Growth, an influential conservative group that worked against two other Obama appointments in recent years.
The last surgeon general to attract widespread attention was the late C. Everett Koop, who in the 1980s spoke out about the dangers of smoking and in favor of AIDS and HIV education.
Dr. Norris Kamo, a physician from Seattle who met Murthy while studying public policy at Harvard and worked with Doctors for America, said he hopes the Senate will concentrate on Murthy’s impressive record. “Ideally they’d focus on his credentials, but who knows with the political environment now,” Kamo said.
In Washington, D.C., Friday, Senate staffers said they were researching Murthy’s record and qualifications. But Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, called him “a great choice” and said she was “proud to see someone with such strong Boston roots nominated.” She will have a prominent role in Murthy’s confirmation because she serves on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which will be in charge of the initial public vetting.
Don Stewart, deputy chief of staff for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, said McConnell typically waits until after a nominee speaks at a committee hearing to weigh support. But he said Murthy’s advocacy for the health law may not play a prominent role in that final decision.
“The entire administration is closely associated with Obamacare,” Stewart said. “If you have that filter, then nobody would get confirmed.”
Murthy declined to be interviewed. Born in England to parents who are originally from South India, he spent most of his childhood in Miami, where his father was a primary care doctor and his mother worked in his practice, said Khan, who works for a health startup in Cambridge.
Murthy excelled academically early on. He graduated as valedictorian from Miami Palmetto Senior High School in Pinecrest, Fla., in 1994, and graduated from Harvard College in three years, distinguishing himself with a magna cum laude degree in biochemical sciences in 1997, according to officials at both schools. He then earned a combined medical and business degree from Yale, and about a decade ago, began working at Brigham and Women’s, first as an intern and now as a hospitalist. His supervisors at the Brigham describe him in outsized glowing terms, emphasizing they are not just praising him because they want him to win confirmation.
His colleagues and friends said Murthy is humble, soft-spoken, and passionately idealistic, throwing himself into his work and friendships. While he is of the age where many of his friends are marrying and having children, he is the single, honorary uncle to many, sending gifts as soon as a happy occasion is announced.
His job at the Brigham is part-time, largely so he can devote energies to his other professional interests. Those include TrialNetworks, a software start-up company in Needham that he founded in 2007, to help drug developers efficiently collect information from clinical trials. In 1995, he founded VISIONS Worldwide, a nonprofit dedicated to AIDS and HIV education in India.
In the past five years, his work mobilizing the medical profession around Obama’s universal health care law has been a prime focus. In an article in Hospitalist News in January 2012, he gave his thoughts about why he helped start Doctors for Obama in 2008, which worked to get Obama elected and was later reborn as Doctors for America. He said he was “struck by how few physicians were organizing and gathering their ideas to actually make an impact on the candidates’ platforms and, ultimately, on a health reform bill.”
“A few colleagues and I began Doctors for America with a simple belief that physicians should play a leadership role in designing and running our nation’s health care system,” he said.
Other than his work with Doctors for America, Murthy’s other political efforts have been modest. Campaign finance records show just two donations: In August 2011, he gave $500 to a Democratic congressional candidate from Illinois, Raja Krishnamoorthi, and this May, he gave $500 to Dr. Donald Berwick, a Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate and former administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Khan said he called Murthy Thursday night as soon as he heard the news, and virtually “screamed” into the phone with excitement. When asked what Murthy said, Khan declined to elaborate other than to say, “He was honored and humbled.”