Searching for balance and walking out the solution
By David Sabgir, MD
It was 11 years invested into medical training wasted. After doing my best for 11 years after college, I found myself totally ineffective at changing my patients’ behavior.
We’d had wonderful heart-to-heart talks. These conversations were real, full of great intention, and essentially worthless. As my patients came back for their six- and 12-month follow-ups, I realized I had not done my job. Their heart disease, which I knew to be 82 percent preventable, was not interrupted. It was a runaway locomotive. They were still sedentary and they hadn’t lost a pound. As a matter of fact, they were up 3 pounds. The weather had been too hot. The weather had been too cold. They knew they had to “get out.” This frustration didn’t repeat itself with one patient or a dozen patients, this was hundreds becoming thousands of patients. I was ineffective despite long, emotional conversations. One day, that was it. I refused to play this charade for what I hope to be a 30-plus-year career of trying to help others.
Now, I would make them say “no” to my face.
I asked a patient in November 2004 if they would join me, my wife, and two little ones at the park for a walk. This was met with a different response. There was a sparkle, a new level of connection between that patient and this physician.
That was the day Walk With a Doc was born. Since that late fall day, my inevitable path to burnout ended and my life’s work balance began. That day was the beginning of a melding of my personal life and my medical practice, two things many doctors fight feverishly to keep apart.
We are honored to share this program with thousands of other health care providers who have followed suit and we’re excited for more to join us. Walk With a Doc is a pop-off valve for us as physicians. It’s simply an hour of our week where we can meet patients on their terms and our terms. We meet in a park or a mall — winters can be harsh in Ohio — in comfortable clothes. We talk about the Buckeyes, laugh about Saturday Night Live or discuss potential dream vacations and we also chat about blood pressure, palpitations, or whether or not to take a statin. Most importantly, we talk while walking or rolling in the wheelchair. When I meet patients at the park, I have more than seven minutes to see a patient. At the park, I have as much time as we need, and we both love it. All 299 of our participating communities love it.
Physicians are thanked way more than we should be for participating in Walk With a Doc but this program benefits us just as much as it does our patients. Every minute, every smile, every comment, and every pat on the back reminds us of why we went into medicine.
We know 82 percent of cardiac disease is preventable if we exercise regularly, eat well, maintain a healthy weight, and don’t smoke. Our more than 6,800 Walk With a Doc events in 2016 arguably hit all four of those facts. Many ‘Walks’ provide fruits, healthy recipes, and sometimes even samples. The walking component goes a long way in addressing the physical activity component. Many doctors also know the endorphins released by walking activate the same receptors activated by nicotine, therefore cutting cravings.
The opportunity to do this with patients is a gift. Over 600 Saturdays have come and gone since the program’s inception and I still hate to miss one. The good feelings of satisfaction and anticipation follow me into the office for the rest of the week. I now close every visit with either, “I would love for you to join me at Walk With a Doc on Saturday” or “It was great to meet your daughter this weekend.” Our chapters know they are going the extra mile for their patients. That brings a whole new level of camaraderie to their offices Monday through Friday. The office visits are shortened dramatically with our walk participants. “I think I told you everything on Saturday, David. I’m really doing great,” my patients say.
We stumbled upon something very special. This level of familiarity between patient and physician breaks down many important barriers. In the process of eliminating those barriers we show a vulnerability that sparks lifelong friendships. These friendships can go a long way in preventing burnout. Our health care leaders around the country embody the phrase “walking the walk.” As patients and as providers, we’re empowered by watching this needle move. We are watching it move away from sedentary lifestyles and loneliness and into a world of togetherness, hope, activity, and progress. It is why I refer to it as a life-work balance. Since that cold November day in 2004, I don’t feel like I’m working nearly as much. I feel like I’m living.
David Sabgir, MD, is a board-certified practicing cardiologist in Columbus, Ohio. He started Walk With a Doc to improve his patients’ quality of life. With 42 chapters, Texas now has more chapters than any state in the country. Walk with a Doc has been recognized by multiple U.S. Surgeon Generals, CNN Heroes, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation among others. Thanks to funding from the Texas Medical Association Foundation and with generous support from Texas Medical Association Insurance Trust and Prudential, Walk With a Doc is free to TMA members. They can be reached at (512) 370-1390 or firstname.lastname@example.org.