“Lifestyle medicine, is true health care, not sick-care” With Dr. Tania Elliott

I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Tania Elliott, a television medical personality and health/medical expert. She is a board-certified…

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I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Tania Elliott, a television medical personality and health/medical expert. She is a board-certified Allergist and Internist, has published multiple papers on allergic skin disease, immunology, and telemedicine, and is nationally recognized as a leader in the telemedicine, technology and innovation space. She is regularly featured on Dr. Oz, Rachael Ray, Live! With Kelly and Michael, Dr. Phil, and as a co-host of the Emmy award-winning The Doctors TV show.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I’ve always been a bit of a science nerd, so at an early age (i’m talking age 7), I was already going to be “the doctor in the family”. What immigrant family wouldn’t push for that? So, I had a plastic doctors kit by age 5 and participated in every science olympiad fair out there until I was a teenager.

I was successful and popular in high school, played 3 sports, and was really into soccer. I was recruited by Haverford College, which is a great liberal arts school, to have a spot on the starting soccer team lineup, and I thought college would be a cake walk like high school. But boy was I in for a surprise. College courses did not come as easily to me, nor did making friends. And then came to junior year. People were dropping out of pre-med like flies. And we had a career counselor, who was more of a career-talker-outer. I applied to 10 medical schools and got 9 rejections. Then finally, an interview at Jefferson…followed by a letter in the mail that said I was on the waiting list. 🙁 I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, so that is when I started to explore other career opportunities in healthcare and became interested in healthcare journalism and communications. My biggest strength was being able to take complex information and explain it to the general population. Whether it was a science research experiment or the latest advances in biology, I had the ability to frame up something into a sound bite that was easy for anyone to understand. I wanted to figure out how to incorporate that skillset into my career.

Turns out, two days before college graduation I got a call from the Jefferson Admissions office. I had been accepted!

To be honest I worried that they had accidentally called me and really meant to accept someone else, so the first 3 months of school I was convinced someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and tell me that they had made a mistake. I was failing going into my anatomy final (by the way, anatomy is pretty gross-I’ll never forget the overwhelming smell going into a room full of cadavers — not my thing). I managed to ace my anatomy final, and it was a real turning point for me. I proved, most importantly to myself, that I belonged, and ended up doing well through medical school from that point on, and making some great friends. One funny story — -one of our cadavers had an implanted penis pump! Imagine a bunch of first year medical students
 dissecting a cadaver and finding that!

But I still had this burning interested in healthcare journalism and I wanted to figure out how to somehow incorporate that into my career. My first week of my first year of medical school I emailed every TV studio in Philadelphia. Only 1 got back to me — -ABC. They told me to contact them when I had some elective time in my schedule so I could spend some time at their medical
 unit. Unfortunately, at Jefferson we didn’t get electives until we were 4th year medical students! So, I saved the email. I waited until the first day of my fourth year (over 3 years!), and contacted them again, on the same email thread. They remembered me! I was able to get my school to allow me to spend 4 weeks at ABC, working on researching medical stories and covering hot medical topics. I loved it! I went on to do a residency in Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai in NYC and while there, spent an elective as
 a 3rd year resident at ABC’s medical unit in ABC.

To complete my training, I did fellowship in Allergy/Immunology NYU-Winthrop hospital.

Something I wish I would’ve known before deciding to become a doctor? How long it takes before you are finally fully trained and ready to practice! After college, it was another 9 years before I was a full blown attending physician.

I practiced as an Allergist for about 3 years before dedicating 90 percent of my time to digital health and telemedicine (I still practice allergy and see patients at Bellevue hospital). It was interesting — I didn’t realize I had an entrepreneurial mindset until I started practicing medicine. Day in and day out, I would see allergy patients and they’d all have similar issues:

It took forever to get an appointment with me, sometimes almost a month

By the time they came to see me there were so signs of an allergic reaction
 and I’d hoped they had pictures on their smartphones for me to view

I felt like a broken record asking them whether they had curtains,drapes,
 upholstered furniture or carpeting in their home (as an Allergist we need to understand what’s in someone’s home environment so we can figure out what is triggering their symptoms) — -it’d be so much easier if I could just see it for myself!

So that’s when I came up with the idea to use telemedicine! Which, in 2013 was more of a pipe-dream. I told my mom about my idea of being able to use something like skype to see a patient’s allergic reaction in real-time, or do a video tour of their homes so that I could see their living environment myself instead of relying on their descriptions. A few weeks later she called me, and told me that Dr. Phil had a similar idea and just launched a company called Doctor on Demand! And she was right, they had just launched a nationwide, video only, on demand telemedicine practice where you could connect with a doctor in under 3 minutes from the comfort of your home. So, I contacted Doctor on Demand. Next thing you know, 7000 patients later, I’d become their medical director, helping to lead their strategic vision. And the rest is history!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I was one of the early adopters and pioneers in telemedicine, licensed in 15 states and took 8–12 hour shifts taking On Demand patient calls for a variety of virtual primary care conditions. One day early in my career I had a very early morning shift. I was visiting my parents, and was sitting at the kitchen table. I got my first video call of the morning, and reached
 back to put on what I thought was my white coat rom the back of my chair. Well, it wasn’t my coat. It was my mother’s hot pink fleece robe that she had placed on the back of my chair, on top of my white coat. I didn’t realize it until I logged into the video consultation — -luckily I realized it immediately and was able to swap out the fluffy fleece robe for my actual white coat and thank goodness the patient didn’t seem to notice!

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

I just finished designing and developing a nationwide, cutting edge clinical prevention and lifestyle medicine program. It focuses on how people think, move, and eat, and most importantly, little things that they may be doing, inadvertently, that could be impacting their health. It a program that also makes sure people understand all of the age-appropriate screenings
 they should get to stay their healthiest selves. Unfortunately less than 10 percent of american adults get comprehensive preventive visits. We are really good at taking our kids for well-child visits, but after the age of 18, we don’t engage with the healthcare system again until we get sick! This program is about keeping people healthy and preventing sickness. Most of the time, people rely on google or an article in a magazine to learn about how to stay healthy. They rarely get that kind of information from their doctor. On my social media feed, I try to provide people with everyday health-hacks that give them an “aha” moment. Like the fact that 30 minutes of brisk walking a day can increase your life expectancy. Or that sleeping in a pitch black room can improve quality of sleep and downregulate your hunger hormones — a quick and easy way to suppress your appetite when you are trying to lose weight. Or, the difference between emotional eating and actual hunger. Wouldn’t it be great if your doctor were full of these facts as well so they can help you make small tweaks to your life that can improve your health in a big way?

I also just finished a research study looking at how people perceive telemedicine visits — -more often than not, they note that the doctor has great “bedside” manner — -I like to call it “webside” manner! What’s great about the study is it really shows that people can have meaningful relationships with their doctors virtually through video, even when not face to face
 in the office. This will be the future of healthcare!

What advice would you give to other doctors to help their patients to thrive?

Take care of yourselves first. Physician burnout is real. In medical school we are trained to “burn the midnight oil”, and that the more hours you put in the better doctor you are. But we have learned that this isn’t true. In fact, working overtime and sleeping less leads to less productivity, irritability, and poor executive function. So, my advice to doctors, be sure to practice what you preach.

Now, in terms of what we are talking to patients about — -yes medications are important. But don’t brush patients away because they are “too healthy to be there”. We oftentimes say — you’re fine, your numbers look great, see you next year. Yes, their numbers may look good, but don’t underestimate the psychosocial and behavioral determinants of health. These are the early clues that someone might be headed down the wrong path. Ask them what is going on in their everyday life. Are they going through a divorce? Having financial struggles? Acting as the primary caregiver of aging parents? Provide them with the support system they need to get through these difficult times before they manifest as full blown depression or obesity or diabetes. Don’t wait for the physical symptoms to show up and then treat the disease. Get to the root cause. Listen. Be their advocate. Help them find resources and support.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My parents have been beyond supportive my entire life. Whether it was bringing me to soccer practice or a science fair growing up, or driving down to Philadelphia just for dinner when I was having a hard time in medical school. And they have watched every single one of my TV segments. The biggest thing my parents have given me is hope and optimism. I never felt like something wasn’t achievable, or that I wasn’t good enough. Before any soccer game, piano recital, or big event, my Dad would always say “suit up, you’re going in” — and it gave me the confidence to say, you know what, I’ve got this! I say it to myself before every public speaking event or TV segment to this day!

Is there a particular book that made an impact on you? Can you share a story?

Clay Christensen “How will you measure your life?” It just puts life into perspective. No one on their deathbed says they wish they spent a few more hours on the office. It made me realize that I had to put more emphasis on community, family, and life experiences, and not lose myself in work. Lots of people wake up one day and say, what have I done with my life? I’ve
 always prioritized school and work. When you are striving to get into medical school, your whole life’s plan from high school through graduation from residency or fellowship is all towards achieving that goal. All of my decisions were based on whether it would impact my chances of getting into medical school. Then suddenly, after you achieve that goal, you ask, then what? Life is about balance, and it’s about living in the present. The book really helped me put things into perspective.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I hope that I have influenced doctors and patients alike to not be ok with the status quo of healthcare. I’ve influenced and trained thousands of doctors on how to deliver top quality medical care through video visits, which saves time and money, but more importantly, meets patient’s where they are on their terms. I’ve trained hundreds of doctors on how to be effective communicators in the delivery of lifestyle medicine, which I believe is true health care, not sick-care.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  • It’s a long journey! It took me 9 years after graduating college to get
     my first job as an Attending physician. And there are loans. Lots of them.
  • You aren’t going to learn anything about business or finance when you
     are in medical school or postgraduate training. You may want to take a few courses to get up to speed.
  • After a while seeing patients for the same medical conditions over and
     over again can get mundane. Try to make it about the person in front of you, not the disease state. It’s much more interesting and impactful that way.
  • You can do more than just see patients with your medical degree. Don’t
     be afraid to think outside the box!
  • At the end of the day, it’s just a job. We as physicians often define
     ourselves by our work. I cannot stress the importance of work life balance. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you are doing yourself a disservice by not setting boundaries between your work and home life. Don’t be afraid to pick up a hobby or plan a vacation. It doesn’t make you less of a doctor. In fact it’s quite the opposite. It enriches your life and makes you a better person.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

Don’t over analyze your life when you are tired.

People overestimate what they can get done in the short term and underestimate what they can done in the long term.

And, my absolute favorite poem and words I live by — Don’t Quit:

Success is failure turned inside out –

The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,

And you never can tell how close you are –

It may be near when it seems afar;

So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit –

It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Let’s figure out how to make healthcare instruction-free. It shouldn’t be that hard to get in touch with your doctor, or find a doctor no less. Our medical records should be accessible to our healthcare providers. We should have them at the touch of our fingertips. Let’s figure out how we can take all of these amazing technological advances which have improved so
 many other industries and make healthcare simple and easy!

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

Larry David. Am I the only one that gets his humor? I’ve told everyone I’ve ever dated that I get one hall pass if Larry David wants to go to lunch. He is witty with a sense of humor that makes sense to me. He also doesn’t take life too seriously and calls out all of the silliness. Sometimes I think he’s in my head (well, not with all of the outlandish stuff…but a decent amount!) I love that.

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