Remarks as prepared; not a transcript

Vice Admiral Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H, FACS
United States Surgeon General
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

National Press Club, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, October 16, 2003, 10 a.m.

Launch of "FirstGov en Español" web site

You might be wondering why the Surgeon General is here to help launch a web site. I’m here because this web site fits neatly into something I’ve been talking about for the past several months: health literacy.

America has the best health care system in the world. Medical discovery is advancing at a rate unequaled in any previous era.

Yet many Americans do not know how to use these advances to help their families stay healthy and safe. This is especially true for people who are just learning English.

We need to do more to close the gap between what health care professionals know and what the rest of America understands.

When President Bush and Secretary Thompson nominated me to be Surgeon General, they asked me to focus on three priorities to maintain and improve the health of the American people.

The President and Secretary insist that the best science always guide our policies and what I do. All three of my priorities are very strongly evidence-based. They are:

  • First, Prevention. — What each of us can do in our own lives and communities to make ourselves and our families healthier.
  • Second, and new to the Office of the Surgeon General, as none of my predecessors had to deal with these issues: Public Health Preparedness. We are investing resources at the federal, state, and local levels to prevent, mitigate, and respond to all-hazards emergencies.
  • Third, Eliminating Health Care Disparities. I am so happy and proud that the President and Secretary have charged me with working with them and all of you to eliminate health disparities. Notice that they didn’t just charge me with reducing health disparities. They said we will eliminate health disparities.
  • Woven through all these issues that constitute my portfolio is an issue we call health literacy.

    Health Literacy

    Looking back, I realize that I learned about health literacy as a kid. I grew up in Spanish Harlem in New York City. We were poor, but that was a relative term, because all of the families in my neighborhood struggled to make ends meet.

    Times were tough, but we made the most of what we had. As in many close-knit communities, some people really stood out because they were so important to the community. One such person was a primary care doctor, a Puerto Rican native who came to Spanish Harlem.

    When I was sick, Dr. Richard Izquierdo would give my abuelita a prescription for my medicine (and sometimes the money to pay for it) and then he would explain to her what she needed to do so that the kids could get better. Dr. Izquierdo knew my family, he knew our culture, and he knew our language.

    What Dr. Izquierdo knew and has practiced every day for the past 45 years is exactly what we are now all trying to promote across the nation: health literacy.

    Health literacy is the ability of an individual to access, understand, and use health-related information and services to make appropriate health decisions.

    Low health literacy is a threat to the health and well-being of Americans. More than 90 million Americans cannot adequately understand basic health information.

    People of all ages, races, incomes, and education levels are challenged by low health literacy. The greatest challenges are among the elderly and in communities of color.

    FirstGov en Español

    There are some simple things that all Americans can do to stay healthy and safe. We can eat healthy foods, get regular medical check-ups, be physically active every day, and make good choices like wearing seatbelts every time we’re in a motor vehicle.

    We must also take advantage of the health information that’s available to us. That’s the heart of the FirstGov, and of FirstGov en Español that we’re launching today.

    Let’s look at why FirstGov en Español is so important:

  • Today, Hispanics are the fastest-growing group using the Internet.
  • In fact, the number of Hispanic online users grew 19% between 2001 and 2002 — more than three times the growth of all other Internet users.
  • Let me say this in both Spanish and English, with the hope that everyone listening right now will understand:

    FirstGov en Español tiene respuestas sobre asuntos importantes tales como cuidado prenatal, alimentos y nutrición, inmunización, Medicare, y otros temas. También incluye información sobre cómo conseguir cuidado médico.

    [and in English]

    FirstGov en Español has answers about important topics such as prenatal care, food and nutrition, immunization, Medicare, and more. It also includes information about how to get health care.

    FirstGov has for several years now offered Americans a central place to access services from the Federal government. HHS is proud to have helped FirstGov with its usability testing ….. the same process that we are applying to HHS websites to better serve the American public.

    As a matter of fact, we will soon launch a more user-friendly the Surgeon General’s website.

    The best thing about FirstGov is that you don’t need to know how the government is organized or how it works or what office or department to go to for the services you need.

    A quest for information should not be a war of attrition. The Federal Government, serving the people, must be accessible.

    People see the government as one entity. That makes sense. From the inside, we know that it’s actually hundreds of agencies, and departments, and offices.

    What the Federal Government must do is present seamless access to the information that people need ….. so that any American who is looking for information online — whether at their home, school, public library, community center, or place of worship — can find the information and understand it.

    For example, if someone needs information on Medicare, child support, or substance abuse treatment services, they don’t need to know that CMS, ACF, and SAMHSA are the agencies that have that information .…. they just need go to FirstGov.

    Thanks to FirstGov, Americans no longer have to swim through the alphabet soup of the federal bureaucracy.

    And now FirstGov en Español offers Spanish speakers greater ease and simplicity in finding government information and services quickly and easily.

    FirstGov en Español will improve our nation’s health literacy, and help us eliminate health disparities.

    Electronic government is truly opening doors to Americans. FirstGov’s English — and now Spanish — web sites are breaking down the bureaucratic walls of government and making government much more accessible to its citizens.

    When I was a practicing as a nurse, and later as a doctor, I talked with people every day who were relying on the Internet for health and medical information.

    So much of that information was incorrect.

    I’ll tell you the same thing I told my patients — it is so important to get your health information from a source you can trust.

    You can trust FirstGov en Español. No question is too large ….. or too small ….. for FirstGov en Español.

    Your health and your family’s health are far too important to play guessing games with … so rely on FirstGov and FirstGov en Español.

    Thank you.


    Last revised: January 9, 2007