Inside Track, Health Care, and Nonprofits

Social activism is in his blood

September 10, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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Dr. Tom Peterson has never liked being subjected to cigarette smoke — as smokers in one of his classes learned back in his college years at Michigan State University in the mid-1970s.

Of course, he wasn't a doctor then, just a 5-foot-11-inch, 185-pound member of the MSU Spartans football team.

His long battle against smoking "started when I was a sophomore in college, and there were people smoking in my humanities class," he said, admitting that, eventually, he "got mad." The smokers were not breaking any MSU rules, however, and the professor took him aside and advised him he could accomplish more by trying to change the smoking policy, rather than "fighting these guys in the back of the room," he recalled.

Peterson took the professor's advice to heart. He organized a group that got enough petitions signed by students to make an impact on the MSU policymakers. It was the beginning of the end of smoking in class at MSU and the germination of his social activism.

Fast forward to 1991, when he attended a medical conference in Massachusetts on teenage smoking in the U.S. Peterson uses the word "passion" in describing the impact he felt. Back home, he began calling high school principals in the Detroit area, where he was working at St. John Hospital. He received permission to visit schools to talk to kids about the dangers of smoking.

"I've been doing that ever since," he added, estimating he has spoken to more than 100,000 students. Some years, he visits as many as 20 high schools, informing the kids about the dangers of tobacco use and the benefits of good nutrition and exercise. It's a task only a committed diehard would voluntarily take on, since many among the audience are likely to light up the minute they get off school property.

According to Peterson, an estimated 19 to 20 percent of adults and teenagers in the U.S. smoke. Every day, about 1,000 teenagers become regular smokers. Almost 400,000 people who started smoking as teenagers die each year from smoking-related diseases.

Tom Peterson, M.D.

Organization: Helen DeVos Children's Hospital
Position: Executive Director, Safety, Quality and Community Health
Age: 56
Birthplace: Ann Arbor
Residence: Grand Rapids Township
Family: Wife, Anne; children Tommy, 27; Sarah, 24; Emily, 22.
Business/Community Organizations: Kent County Medical Society; Michigan chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics; Michigan State Medical Society; American College of Executive Physicians; Asthma Network of West Michigan; Tobacco Free Partners Coalition; Kent Medical Foundation.
Biggest Career Break: Attending a Stop Teenage Addiction to Tobacco conference in 1991. "I called my wife from the conference and said, 'I've found my new project and am really excited!'"

Peterson makes the point that smoking has been the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the U.S. for many years. It's the No. 1 cause of all cancers in the U.S. and of emphysema and other chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. It is responsible for nine out of 10 deaths from lung cancer and one out of five deaths from heart disease.

The money involved? It's big: Peterson says tobacco use drives an estimated $96 billion in U.S. health care expenditures and another $97 billion in lost productivity each year.

In 1996, Peterson was one of the key leaders in the formation of a group of med students and retired doctors and dentists in Kent County called NicoTEAM, a tobacco prevention and education program aimed at 6th through 8th graders. NicoTEAM's involvement with that audience and their favorable response has won the project national recognition among medical professionals and was featured in the journal Prevention Science.

Peterson also serves on a nationally active panel of 10 physicians, sponsored by the Julius B. Richmond Center of Excellence at the American Academy of Pediatrics, in the drive to educate on the hazards of tobacco use.

All that is in addition to his day job: executive director of safety, quality and community health at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, a position he has held since 2010. He has been with the children's hospital since 2005.

Peterson grew up in Ann Arbor in a family inclined to medicine and athletics. His father was an orthopedic surgeon and team physician for the U-M basketball team during the 1960s, and also team physician for the Ann Arbor Pioneer High School football team for many years. His father's brother served as team dentist for the U-M football team, and both brothers were athletes who played football at U-M. Peterson was the team doc for East Kentwood High School athletics for 14 years.

He attended AUC Medical College in Montserrat, British West Indies, where he earned a Doctor of Medicine degree. He did his internship and residency at St. John Hospital from 1987 to 1990, when he was licensed by the state of Michigan and received board certification from the American Board of Pediatrics. He began practicing pediatric medicine when he moved to Grand Rapids in 1990.

He taught at the MSU College of Human Medicine from 1991 to 2006 as an assistant clinical professor and then as a clinical associate professor from 2007 to the present. He also completed the advanced training program in health care delivery improvement at Intermountain Health Care in Salt Lake City in 2005, and was certified in health care project management at the Harvard School of Public Health in 2010.

He said he went into pediatrics because he loves working with children, and he enjoys primary care "where you really have more of a relationship" with the patients, adding that he likes building relationships, working with families and getting to know his patients over time.

Then there is his multi-faceted role as a community advocate on health and safety issues.

"I always just liked working with people in the communities. I think I've learned over time that activism is in my blood," he said. He starts with the obvious challenges, and about 12 years ago that was smokers who work in hospitals.

Peterson said he and his anti-smoking group achieved the first coordinated, multi-hospital ban on smoking in the nation. That was in 2003, involving Spectrum, Saint Mary's and Metro Health. Single hospitals had done it, the Mayo Clinic being one of the first. United Memorial Health Systems in Greenville was the first in Michigan, banning smoking on campus in 1996. Peterson was there, too: He was the founder and medical director of United Memorial's United Lifestyles program from 1996 to 2001.

Two of his other health care passions are obesity and hospital safety, for both patients and staff.

Peterson was instrumental in the development of the Healthy Weight Center at DeVos Children's Hospital, a $600,000 initial commitment by Spectrum. He was medical director of Spectrum Health Healthier Communities from 2005 through 2010, which is committed to improving the health of underserved populations in Kent County.

Being a pediatrician, childhood obesity is particularly galling to Peterson. One of his projects is FitKids360, which works to help overweight kids appreciate the advantages of exercise.

Obesity is "very similar to the tobacco problem in a lot of ways," he said. It affects a huge share of the U.S. population, and he flatly describes it as "an epidemic" responsible for an estimated 300,000 deaths annually.

Junk food is a major culprit, along with lack of exercise. But junk food and fast food are "just like the tobacco world: It has a lot of money in it," he said, with big corporations and industries relying on it, such as the corn industry. A relative dietary newcomer over the past 35 years, high fructose corn syrup is typical of the increased sweeteners in processed food today and "is in virtually everything we eat. And it's very cheap," he said.

While some may oppose Peterson on the grounds of individual freedom, he maintains that direct action like New York City's ban on the sale of soda in servings larger than 16 ounces is a necessary first step. "In the '90s, the first step was you can't smoke in hospitals. Now you can't smoke in any business," he noted.

Along with being a social activist, Peterson also is physically active. Among other things he does to stay fit, he holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

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