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Hub doctor to lead fight on obesity

Joins Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program

Judith S. Palfrey led the Division of General Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston for more than two decades.
Judith S. Palfrey led the Division of General Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston for more than two decades.
By Neena Satija
Globe Correspondent / September 3, 2011

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A Boston pediatrician has been named executive director of Michelle Obama’s national campaign targeting childhood obesity, the Obama administration announced yesterday.

Judith S. Palfrey will head the program called Let’s Move! after leading the Division of General Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston for more than two decades.

“Judy is just the perfect choice for this position,’’ said Claire McCarthy, who first met Palfrey as a resident at Children’s about 20 years ago and has worked with her there ever since. “The idea that health is bigger than just a prescription or a doctor’s visit - that’s something that she gets really well.’’

Soon after earning her medical degree at Columbia University of Physicians and Surgeons, Palfrey began her career at Children’s Hospital as a fellow in the relatively new field of community health medicine.

Under the mentorship of the late Dr. Julius Richmond, who spearheaded the Head Start program and served as surgeon general under the Carter administration, she saw patients at the hospital as well as in their communities, touring the streets of Greater Boston to better understand how her patients lived.

She was struck by how clearly the roots of childhood health problems like obesity could be found in the community.

In Jamaica Plain, for instance, “It was just stunning to see that there were no places for people to buy food,’’ Palfrey recalled by phone yesterday. “You could find liquor stores on every corner, but . . . families literally were having to take three buses to go to a normal shopping market.’’

She remembers after-school programs where children sat in a room for hours at a time with no opportunity to move around. “There probably were 25 or so kids in a 10-by-10 room,’’ she said of one such program. “And that was all they were going to do all afternoon, just sit in this room. There was no place for them to run or play.’’

She said her first order of business when her position begins Tuesday will be with the “Cities, Towns, and Counties’’ initiative of the program, working with municipalities to promote outdoor spaces where people can exercise.

She also plans to get faith-based organizations involved in efforts to fight obesity. “When there’s a mosque or church or synagogue, people are coming there and oftentimes that’s a very nice way to get good information out for families to know a little bit more about the food that they’re eating, about the opportunities for exercise for their kids,’’ Palfrey said.

Joanne Cox, the associate chief of general pediatrics at Children’s, said working with Palfrey for the past 25 years has taught her to treat her patients outside the doctor’s office as well as in.

“It’s very easy to take care of patients and really not have an idea about how they live,’’ Cox said. But after Palfrey arranged for her colleagues to go on bus tours of Boston neighborhoods, Cox often changes how she drives to work so she can tour the neighborhoods as well.

“She would always say, ‘You have to know where your patients live. You have to know what’s going on in your patients’ lives,’ ’’ Cox said.

While at Children’s, Palfrey worked to promote more community-based training for doctors, something that has since been adopted by residency programs across the country. At her new job, she hopes to start programs in which pediatric residents will “actually take a little walk around the neighborhood to see where children can play,’’ she said.

Palfrey will take leave from her position as the director of the Children’s International Pediatric Center at the Boston hospital, as well as from her role as master of Adams House at Harvard College. She is also the immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

Chelsea Conaboy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Neena Satija can be reached at nsatija@globe.com.