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Creating alternate routes: Reimagining healthcare between doctors and their communities

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December 23, 2018. Dr. Kimberly Field-Springer. Photo by Jacob Bushey/Berry College.

What is the one activity that is free; we already do it almost every day; and it can greatly affect our health? The answer is walking. If walking were a prescription drug, the recommended dosage would be 150 minutes per week. According to the CDC, this weekly commitment could reduce health risks for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and even some types of cancers.

In addition, walking for the recommended amount of time improves bone density, muscle mass, mental health, and balance. The benefits of walking are plentiful. But if this information still does not persuade someone, walking also has been known to help with weight loss and increase the likelihood of living a longer life. So why are only 62 percent of Americans doing it? Some say it is because we do not promote walking enough while others suggest we do not have enough access to walk-friendly spaces. Still others argue that individuals need motivation to sustain regular physical activity such as walking. So, how do we encourage someone to find the motivation to walk? This was one out of the many questions I had as I began to explore a walking program called, Walk with a Doc.

Walk with a Doc, founded in 2005, brings together community members, physicians, medical students, and healthcare professionals to take steps towards encouraging an active lifestyle. Dr. David Sabgir, cardiologist from Mount Carmel St. Anne’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, initiated the idea of the program. Dr. Sabgir, who upon finishing his internship, residency and fellowship at The Ohio State University Medical Center, felt he could be doing more to create transformative change that would affect the lives of his patients and members of the community.

He began to encourage patients to meet him Saturday mornings for a walk in the park. What started out as a simple request and selfless act of care turned into a world-renowned health campaign. Although originally organized out of his personal garage, the program’s popularity rapidly generated enough interest for administrators at St. Anne’s to donate office space and hire assistants. Since the program’s inception, it has expanded to more than 250 sites within the U.S. and is hosted in nine countries worldwide. Walk with a Doc has recently been recognized by the U.S. Surgeon General who uses the program as an example of a successful community-centered health campaign.

My role in researching Walk with a Doc started in 2010 when I began participating in the program. Over the course of three years, I came to learn why the program was meaningful for those who attended. I became a witness to those who shared with me their health journeys about breast cancer, type II diabetes, training for a marathon, heart disease and the management of weight through exercise and social support. Participants also shared personal stories of loss, fear, pain, love, and joy. The walk offered a space where participants could share their stories with each other. For instance, one member who was recently diagnosed with type II diabetes became friends with another who lived with type II diabetes for years. When he shared his fears about not being around for his children, the other member offered him advice about how to better manage his health. One suggestion he made was to carry a meter on him at all times to check his blood sugar levels.

Each member I interviewed had their own motivations for attending the program based from their unique lived experience. Walk with a Doc created its own culture, transforming traditional meanings for patient-provider relationships. According to The Physicians Foundation, doctors care for at least 20 patients a day leading to minimal interaction between patient and provider in the office. Patients want to be seen as a person, not a number. According to one of Dr. Sabgir’s patients, the walk invites a friendly atmosphere in comparison to the structure and time constraints imposed during a regular office visit.

Beyond seeking advice about health, patients and providers discuss kids, work and life. The walk fosters compassionate care between patients and providers. Walk participants and doctors are creating alternate routes for how we conceive of the patient-provider relationship. For them, these relationships are partnerships based upon the mutual exchange of information that take into account localized, health histories informing major medical decisions and the adoption of health behaviors.

In 2016, I along with two co-producers released a short documentary film based upon my participation at the walk. “Alternate route: Reimagining healthcare between doctors and their communities” shadows members and the founder of the Walk with a Doc program. Along with participant stories, the film also offers statistics about the barriers constraining the development of meaningful patient-provider relationships as well as evidence that links benefits of walking to better health outcomes.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 1 in 3 Americans delay seeing a doctor because of costs. Imagine having the ability to ask a doctor a question, receive a second opinion, and or follow-up about a recent office visit every week. In walking and talking with a doctor there is a relationship formed around care that is much richer than the traditional relationships doctors have within the confines of the current healthcare system. These experiences of walking and talking enliven the patient-provider relationship where participants begin to see and understand their health differently achieving what was once unimaginable.

For information about walks locally in Rome, check out the Harbin Clinic Doc Walk website at https://harbinclinic.com/tags/doc-walk or watch for upcoming walks in Rome News-Tribune’s Community Calendar.

Kimberly Field-Springer, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of communication at Berry College.