Profile: Bill Purcell, pediatrician turned politician

August 1, 2008

North Carolina state senator and former pediatrician Bill Purcell has focused on health issues such as tobacco control and motorist safety.

For decades prior to that, though, he was a pediatrician, handling his share of North Carolina's children. Somehow, Purcell was able to keep his hours in medical practice while serving local government as the mayor of his town of Laurinberg.

Purcell unfortunately had to give up medical practice to focus full-time on the law. "I tried to keep up with the practicing pediatrics, but it was just impossible," he rued. One day he resigned as mayor of Laurinberg, and the next day he showed up in the statehouse in Raleigh.

Purcell's focus necessarily expanded beyond those under 18. Living in a state whose big cities have tobacco brands named after them means plenty of adults need more medical care than they're getting. He wants to expand the funding for research to make centers "comparable to Sloan-Kettering and Johns Hopkins." He's concerned about the higher ischemia levels in his part of the "stroke belt" extending from the Carolinas down to Georgia. And he's pushed for stronger seat belt and all-terrain vehicle laws to keep motorists safer.

Trying to take care of all a state's residents, young and old, is a daunting task, however. "I think we need some form of national health insurance," Purcell said. "What we have now isn't working as well as it could." Those with no health insurance seek emergency care free of charge, he explains, which raises costs for everyone else. As a result, "we pay for it, one way or the other!"

When voters ask about his views of a possible vaccine-autism connection, he tells them what they may not want to hear. "I get pushed on this a lot, but the scientific evidence just doesn't support it in my opinion," he said. He sought the views of renowned Duke immunologist Sam Katz, MD, on the subject, who concurred. "Advances in health care began when science got involved," Purcell explained of his defense of vaccines' safety. "If you take the science out of it, you get chaos."

Not many retired pediatricians are as up on nanotechnology research for oncology as he. And not many politicians receive awards from the American Medical Association. Last year, the AMA gave Purcell a Dr. Nathan Davis award for his decades of health care service as a public servant.

"One thing I've found is I can influence health care in a broader sense," Purcell said of his current occupation. "Even compared to a busy practice, I can touch so many more lives this way."

But despite being in contact with health care decision makers, there's one key demographic he doesn't come in contact with as much anymore. That would be the future voters. "I do miss seeing the little children," he said. "That's one part that's different."