Q&A With Dr. Deb Harper
By Rhonda Aronwald
Pediatrician Deb Harper, MD, talks about new concerns for kids' health.
What worries you most about kids' health today?
There are a growing number of kids who are overweight and inactive. I have begun seeing kids under age 10 with high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. I have no idea how long these kids will live. I'm not sure if they'll see age 40. I took this work to help people be as healthy as possible, but it sometimes feels like I'm standing in front of a freight train trying to stop it by holding my hand out.
What can parents do to help?
Be healthy themselves, and show kids by example. Do jumping jacks in the living room. Be seen reading, or eating an apple. Keep healthy snacks available and eat meals together when you can. Involve your children in decision making from a young age, like picking out healthy foods. Have your kids garden with you. If you live in an apartment, you and your child can even grow radishes in a pie pan. A great way to get kids to eat fruits and vegetables is to help them make a connection between what they grow and what they eat. Kids learn by what they see us do, rather than what we say.
What's the biggest challenge you face in your practice?
Working with parents who don't look critically at information. I think of a parent who was afraid to give their baby vitamin K, which prevents deadly bleeding in the brain, because they read one negative thing on the Internet. I'm challenged by parents who don't believe in giving their children immunizations, even as we learn of more unimmunized children getting sick or dying of preventable illnesses.
How do you combat that kind of misinformation?
I try to point people in the direction of health resources that are based on proven science. Evidence shows that immunization protects our children. But not everyone values science, and it's hard to get this message across when that's the case.
A lot of parents are concerned about how much time their kids spend watching TV or screen time in general. What do you think of that?
People can learn from TV. I find that the Simpsons can be role models; they have their bad moments, but they're wonderfully supportive, loving parents most of the time. But all things in moderation. Limit screen time. Make the inside of your house boring and encourage outside active time.
What kind of positive things do you see going on in medicine?
At Group Health, I love secure e-mail so that I can answer my patients' questions even when I'm not in the office. Parents can sign up for this service even if their child is covered under Group Health but they aren't. Group Health does a tremendous job with chronic disease management and care plans, which we've adapted for our young patients. Working at Group Health makes it easy for me to practice medicine every day.
You had to juggle a lot of balls as a pediatrician who also raised a family (Harper has one grown stepdaughter and three boys in college). Any advice for parents who are doing the same thing today?
It's hard to keep all the balls in the air, all the time. Sometimes, you have to decide which ones are most important to your family, and let the other ones drop until you can pick them up later. Don't be afraid to accept help if it's offered, or hire help if you're able to. We were fortunate that my parents moved close by after my second son was born. I worked part time and made an effort to balance my time when my kids were young. I cooked a lot of meals and froze them. The Crock-Pot was my friend!
Other than helping their children stay healthy, what do you see as a parent's most important job?
Help your children learn to see themselves as useful people. We gave our kids jobs that were important things they could do for our whole family, like laundering their own clothes and doing the dishes. Kids need to know they are competent; they learn this when they've done something well themselves. It takes an investment of time early on to teach them, but it's good for them, for their families, and for their communities.
You just finished your term as president of the Washington State Medical Association (WSMA). Tell me about that.
The WSMA brings doctors together from different organizations, specialties, and geographic areas to collaborate and work to effect positive changes in the way health care is delivered in our state. By working with peers, I've been able to help improve patient safety, bring a medical home to people who don't have health care, and share information in ways that make us all better as doctors. That collaboration is very powerful.
With your term finished, do you plan to spend more time on the advocacy work you've been involved with?
I work half a day a week performing exams for victims of abuse. I will continue to advocate for children in our community and with our legislators. And I look forward to a time when the need for this work isn't so great.