Unhealthy Doctors Don’t Make the Grade
Author by Dr. Shilpa P. Saxena
Odds are that you wouldn’t surrender your lovely locks to a hairstylist who herself looks disheveled with ill attention to her hairstyle. Similarly, would you entrust your life savings and future financial security to a financial advisor you know to be going through his ownprocess? The answer seems obvious, right? Let’s set up another real life example. Bring yourself back to the moment you learned of Bill Clinton’s ‘extra-curricular activities’ during his presidential career. Were you of the camp that said, “It’s his personal life and it has nothing to do with his professional abilities and integrity”? Or were you like those who were concerned that these behaviors signaled some ethical deviation that likely pervaded his character and raised concerns about his overall decision making compass? This historical example illustrates the polarizing aspect of our potential judgment of a thought leader in the landscape of his/her actions.
Now, let’s get health care about this! Should patients expect their doctors to be living examples of their life’s work? It doesn’t seem we hold our doctor’s to the same scrutiny. Some may argue that patients easily put their lives in the hands of the most skilled surgeon, no matter what his health status. Why should it matter if he is obese or smokes? You only have to deal with him for the relatively short time it takes to get evaluated for surgery, get the surgery and then make sure you recovered from the surgery. But what about the thousands of doctors charged with leading the charge against chronic disease. Picture this common scenario: You are sitting with your primary care doctor as he is reviewing your labs and you hear these words, “I need you to cut back on the fat and salt in your diet and start exercising. This would be a way for you to control your cholesterol and high blood pressure issues.” You then begin to ponder the possibilities and realize that this might be difficult to do long term (or maybe you don’t really want to do it). Then, as your brain runs through the list of all the reasons a lifestyle change would be hard, you notice that your doctor doesn’t seem to be following his own advice! “Eureka, this whole lifestyle thing must not be that important,” you say “because if it was, he surely would be in better shape.”
Diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, tobacco abuse and obesity are all on the rise. The current medical model is NOT working. We all know the culprit… these are all diseases of poor lifestyle (not genetics, like most of us have been led to believe)! Unfortunately, doctors are not educated with the necessary information to help patients change their unhealthy lifestyle (the way they eat, the way they move and the way they manage their stress) even though it is the most powerful tool in preventing AND treating chronic disease. My patients are shocked when I tell them that most doctors have had little to no formal education in nutrition, exercise and stress management therapies. Having recognized this deficit, I pursued this information for my patients and for myself and have noted a dramatic response from my community. Patients are thirsty for this information because they are getting tired of the same old options for their symptom and disease management- a never-ending list of medications with increasing referrals for procedures, radiology and surgery. So let’s put this all together, now that I am off my pulpit!
Should doctors be held to a higher standard of healthy living as they are mentors, advisors and thought leaders to their patients on these matters of health promotion and disease management? If you saw your oncologist smoking a cigarette out back on a break, or witnessed your overweight cardiologist chugging down a sugary soda with his greasy burger, would your confidence and respect waiver? Obviously, doctors have the right to do whatever they want legally; however, many patients articulate that it is professionally irresponsible to advise and, at times, preach one thing and then proceed to behave totally different in one’s own life. An interesting tidbit: the Latin origins of the word ‘doctor’ translate to something many of us might not have guessed… ‘to teach.’ Most of us would agree that in both historical and modern times, many a great teacher educated by example, as it reflected his/her passion in the teachings.
Integrity is the bottom line here. When I tell a patient that coming off of refined sugars and starches is necessary to help their diabetes or cholesterol condition, I can honestly say that I have walked the walk whilst talking the talk. That’s what patients are inspired to follow. I am a real person with my own genetics, symptoms and lifestyle issues but I hold myself accountable to what I must do to get the vibrant, healthy, med-free, disease-free life that I, too, crave. After learning about the dramatic effect lifestyle plays in the evolution of disease, I made a major U-turn in my life. I stopped drinking the one sugary soda I consumed (the one I rationalized because I didn’t drink coffee or tea like my parents and deserved the caffeine for my stressful life.) I started eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, even though the thought of fruits never appealed to me at the time. I started cutting back on my refined starch intake by limiting my white bread, pasta, rice and potatoes. I learned that 95% of Type 2 diabetes was primarily caused by poor lifestyle and I could no longer continue to lament over my seemingly terrible genetics!
In my office, I became an open book. I shared my progress, my obstacles and used them to guide patients through what they might encounter along a potentially similar journey towards better health. Even now, it’s not required of me but it shows that I am not ‘immune’ from following my own guidelines. I am not perfection, nor do I think that there is such a thing. I follow my ‘90/10 rule’ (I aim for a 90% good choices rate as a measure of success in a world of inevitable change and limited control!) As I go to social events and celebrate birthdays with my kids, I know that the decisions that I make are in line with what I teach my patients every day in the office. When I bump into patients at the grocery store, I am confident that their casual surveillance of my cart would reveal a consistent message in and outside my office. (By the way, I am the first one to admit that making effective changes in lifestyle and thinking are not easy and work on it every day myself!)
Our own Vedantic roots point to this consistent sattvic focus as a basis for healthy mind and body. Being attached to foods, thoughts and actions that cause attachment to worldly pleasures are a source of suffering now, and thousands of years ago. It’s interesting how Truth stands the test of time. For me, marrying my thoughts, beliefs and actions in my personal and professional roles is the simplest (as in the true sense of the word; not as in ‘easiest’) way to live. This is the best ‘doctor’s advice’ I can pass on… scientifically speaking!
About Shilpa P. Saxena, MD
Shilpa P. Saxena, M.D. is a Board-Certified Family Practice physician whose passion and purpose come to life through her belief that patients make better choices about their health when they understand all the relevant factors that lead to disease. She has applied the core principle of education beyond medication at the SevaMed Institute, where she implements her broad base of medical knowledge with her patients to achieve tremendous success in finding, treating and reversing the root cause of illness. Recently, she has also launched an online medical community to share this new approach to medicine called LivingWellnessUniversity.com. Now, Dr. Saxena is able to help patients around the globe improve their health through education and making powerful lifestyle changes. Dr. Saxena graduated from the University of Florida College Of Medicine through an accelerated honors medical program and completed her Family Practice residency at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Jacksonville, Florida, where she served as Chief Resident. Dr. Saxena is a Fellow of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Arizona, under the direction of Dr. Andrew Weil. Additionally, Dr. Saxena currently serves as Clinical Faculty for the Institute of Functional Medicine helping educate physicians around the world on how to implement clinically effective programs for reversing chronic disease.