Walk With a Doc: A Win-Win for Doctors and Patients

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Dr. David Sabgir
Dr. David Sabgir is a practicing cardiologist for the Mount Carmel Health System and founder of Walk with a Doc.
David Sabgir

It was eleven years invested into medical training wasted. After doing my best for eleven years after college, I found myself totally ineffective at changing my patient’s behavior.

We had had wonderful heart-to-heart talks. These conversations were real, full of great intention—and essentially worthless. As my patients came back for their 6- and 12-month follow-ups, I realized I had not done my job. Their heart disease, which I knew to be 82% preventable, was not interrupted. It was a runaway locomotive. They were still sedentary and they hadn’t lost a pound. A matter of fact, they were up 3 pounds.

I heard it all: 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 anymore in what I hope will be a 30+ year career of trying to help others.

Now, I would make them say “no” to my face.

In November 2004, I invited a patient to join 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-work balance began. That day was also the beginning of a melding of my personal life and my medical practice—two things many doctors fight feverishly to keep apart, as did I. As unconventional as this “Reese's Cup” sounds to many, it’s undoubtedly made me a better doctor.

Walk with a Doc group walking at the park
"The opportunity to [walk] with patients is a gift. Over 600 Saturdays have come and gone since our inception and I still hate to miss one."
Dr. David Sabgir

Today, we're proud that thousands of other healthcare providers have followed suit by taking part in Walk with a Doc, with tens or even hundreds of of thousands of additional providers likely to join very soon.

Walk with a Doc is a pop-off valve for us as physicians. It is simply an hour of our week where we can meet patients on their terms and, for that matter, our terms. Instead of a sterile office filled with copays, long waits and anxiety, we are together in the middle of a beautiful park wearing ball caps and jeans.  We’re talking about the Buckeyes, laughing about favorite sketches from “Saturday Night Live,” or discussing potential dream vacations. We’re also talking about blood pressure, palpitations, or whether or not to take a statin. Most importantly, we are doing it while we are walking or wheelchair rolling.

At the park, doctors have more than seven minutes to see a patient; we have as much time as we need, and we love it. All of our 335 Walk with a Doc communities love it. We get thanked way more than we should, because the program benefits us doctors just as much as it does our patients. Every single minute, every single smile, comment and pat on the back reminds us of why we went into medicine.

We know 82% 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. Many Walks provide fruits and healthy recipes or food samples. The walk itself goes a long way in addressing the need for physical activity. Many doctors also know the endorphins released by walking activate the same receptors as those activated by nicotine, therefore cutting tobacco cravings.

The opportunity to do this with patients is a gift. Over 600 Saturdays have come and gone since our inception and I still hate to miss one. This feeling extends into the office throughout the week. I now have the excitement of closing 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 (sometimes literally) going the extra mile for their patients. That brings a whole new level of camaraderie to their offices Monday through Friday.

We also find that patients who participate in Walk with a Doc have dramatically shorter office visits. “I think I told you everything on Saturday, David. I’m really doing great,” the patient may say.

We stumbled upon something very special when we started Walk with a Doc. This level of familiarity between patient and physician breaks down many important barriers. In the process of eliminating those barriers we are showing a vulnerability that sparks fantastic, lifelong friendships. These are friendships healthcare providers cherish, and they go a long way in preventing burnout.

Our healthcare leaders around the country are “walking the walk,” in every meaning of the phrase. Together, providers and patients are 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. That 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 near as much. I feel like I’m living.

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THIS CONTENT DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. This content is provided for informational purposes and reflects the opinions of the author. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding your health. If you think you may have a medical emergency, contact your doctor immediately or call 911.