A Lifetime of Advocacy

July 30, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS—Doctor Tom Peterson has been working in advocacy long before he ever earned his Ph.D.

“I’ve been working with tobacco components for a long time. I can remember back as far as high school. I was dating my wife at the time and we used to get in hassles in the restaurants when people would smoke around you and I was always kind of an anti-smoker, that’s what they called you back in the 70’s,” said Peterson. “My wife was dating me back then and she had to tell me to shut up a number of times,” he laughed. “But one thing you learn when you’re in the advocacy role is you learn when to pick your battles…as you grow you say well I’ve probably pushed something too much at one time and even though it might have been the right thing to do, you don’t get the right outcome. You have to learn how to do it to get the right outcome even if you have to bight your tongue a few times.”

While at Michigan State University, Peterson tackled the issue of smoking in classrooms.

“I remember there would be smoking in the classrooms,” said Peterson. “I started up a group that got a policy that when kids came through to register it was voted on to take smoking out of the classrooms. That was 1974.”

He reminisced about how hospitals used to be; selling cigarettes in the hospital gift shops, doctors doing rounds and smoking, or new mother’s smoking the postpartum room while breastfeeding their babies.

“We’ve come a long ways, especially in the last fix and six years,” he said.

Peterson speculates that the United States will join other countries in becoming completely smoke-free in the next five years and sees Michigan as being close to following the trend. Peterson noted that Michigan has yet to become a smoke-free state, but “we’ve lead the pack in some other areas though.”

He’s referring to smoke-free hospital campuses which started in 1996 with United Memorial Hospital and has now spread to 123 hospitals in the state out of 144.

Peterson wanted to be a physician since he was young, his father was an orthopedic physician involved with sports medicine in Ann Arbor. He always enjoyed kids and decided to go into pediatrics. He finished his residency in the late 1980’s and came to a private practice in Grand Rapids in 1990 for about 14 to15 years. Since, he has been in an administrative position for Spectrum Health and DeVos Children’s Hospital.

His current titles are medical director of quality for Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and medical director for the healthier communities at Spectrum Health, which Peterson said has a committed amount of money every year to provide health promotion programs for the underserved in the community.

Peterson enjoys his administrative roles as they allow him to have a better balance between his professional and advocacy work.

“I can do things in the prevention wellness world that you can’t do in private practice,” said Peterson. “Any where that you can really change things for the better in the health care system; I think those are areas I really enjoy being involved with.”

He still is does a little clinical work, but no longer does private practice.

“I might get back into clinical someday, but (advocacy work) has been a lot of fun.”

Educating others is his passion, whether its teaching other health professionals or talking with students.

Peterson has been doing school talks for about 18 years now, speaking at 15 to 20 schools a year.

“I was doing a talk in a school a few weeks ago and I went in and there’s about 300 to 400 kids and you finish and you sit down and think, ‘That was fun.’ Its 18 years later and its still fun and I think that’s why I keep going and you can see the progress that you make and that’s what makes it fun also. There’s been some great progress that we’ve made.”

Peterson, who was honored as the Community Activist of the Year by the American Legacy Foundation, has spoken to roughly 100,000 kids through his 18 years of speaking at schools.

“If you can affect a number of kids to not start or people to quit you’ve saved out of every 10 that’s quit you’ve saved three or four lives and that’s the way I look at it,” said Peterson. “Much more than I could ever do checking ears and strep-throats in the office.”

He is also significantly involved with child hood obesity and wants to focus on health prevention. Peterson quoted a stat saying that the United States federally puts around $1.30 per person towards preventative health investments and about $1,300 towards treatment.

His latest effort towards child hood obesity is creating a pediatric weight clinic through the children’s hospital

“Right now if you have overweight kids in our community, and its’ probably between 15 to 25 percent of the kids who are significantly obese, we have no place to send them and doctors who see them really have no resources,” he said. “We have to create an entire culture, whether it’s from billboards, TV… the fact that kids have access to walking sidewalks and bike passes. We don’t have that stuff in Grand Rapids.” HQX

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