Dr. Robin Berzin is a Columbia trained doctor and the founder and CEO of Parsley Health. She spoke with me in September from New York City.
Tell me about what Parsley does.
Parsley Health’s mission is to transform the health of everyone everywhere. We are all primary care doctors who are also trained in precision medicine for in-depth diagnostic testing, as well as functional medicine which looks at the whole patient picture. We prescribe specific lifestyle changes, supplements and nutritional protocols, in addition to medications, because the combined approach of all of these things leads to better results.
What’s behind the name “Parsley Health?”
I wanted a name that was bright, fresh and memorable, that could be a consumer health company and could be a tech company, because we are both. I had a list of names and ran them by my best friend over drinks one night – this is my friend who loves pop culture and knows who all the celebs are, something I’m totally out of the loop on. When I got to “Parsley Health” she said, “I like that” – and the rest is history.
How has the response been from other doctors?
We have had a lot of referrals from gastroenterology, gynecology and psychiatry for example, notably many of the procedure-based specialists, who don’t have the time to put the puzzle pieces together when it comes to patients that may have multiple health issues.
Your background is interesting from the point of view of how you personally experienced the healthcare system – can you expand on that.
During medical school I developed cystic acne despite having great skin growing up. After years of trying the birth control pill, a blood pressure medication called Spironolactone that blocks hormones, peels, creams and even dermatologists who injected cortisone into my zits, resulting in scars, I learned through the study of functional medicine that I had developed sensitivities of gluten and dairy which can happen under high stress. Stress breaks down the tight junctions in the gut lining, exposing your gastrointestinal-based immune system to the foods and medications you are ingesting. For some people this can trigger new allergies they have never had before. I ended up cutting out all wheat and dairy and within 6 weeks my acne disappeared (after years of failure with drugs creams and shots). Now, before I decide whether I want to consume those foods I have to decide if they’re ‘zit-worthy’ or not – I’m in control. While acne isn’t as serious as what some people go through when accessing healthcare, it was a very real issue for me, costing a lot of time and money, and was part of how I learned firsthand that we have more power and control over our health than we think. It also woke me up to the importance of “looking upstream” and finding the root cause of an issue, rather than just band-aiding symptoms. Today, “Look Upstream” is one of Parsley Health’s core company values.
Something I’ve noticed as well: the mind does have an impact on the body and vice versa. Can you share how your experiences in both training and as a patient yourself helped inform how you practice?
In my training at a top medical school and residency program, the mind and the body were treated as separate, but that never made much sense. Our mental state is clearly reflected in our physical state and vice versa. For example 95% of the serotonin is in our gut in what’s called our “second brain” and stress is the biggest trigger for auto-immune disease flares. We learn these things in medical school, but then weren’t taught to apply them in practice.
In my personal life I discovered yoga, which led me to meditation, and ultimately to being more conscious of the foods I ate. As a result of these practices I was able to find clarity in my career and my relationships, I was able to manage my anxiety without medication, and I was able to resolve a chronic condition like cystic acne with simple changes to my diet. These experiences impacted how I understood what medicine should and could be. It’s not that drugs are bad – they are necessary and very important tools. They just aren’t enough.
What are some of the barriers you faced in starting Parsley Health? And opportunities? What makes it unique?
Because we are taking a radically new approach to medical care, we had to start outside the insurance system. While long term we will take insurance, today it’s essential that we are able to do it right when it comes to delivering transformative medical services and insurance hasn’t caught up to us – yet. “Doing it right” means a few things. First, we spend more time with you, hours in fact, compared to the minutes you get with a regular doctor. We spend over an hour with you in each of our first 2 visits! The national average is 15 minutes for a primary care visit – per year.
Second, we created what’s called a “value-based model” or a membership model. Instead of charging by the visit we charge an annual membership that includes all your services – this way, we can offer unlimited messaging with your doctor and your care team 365 days a year, so you’re always supported. This is wildly different than primary care – where today the average wait times are 29 days across the country and you can’t ask anyone a question between visits. It’s clear that ongoing relationships and communication powerfully transform health outcomes but we are one of the few services offering it.
Finally, our approach to care addresses the top drivers of health – drivers most doctors ignore. Did you know 90% of all health outcomes are driven by social determinants of health, like what you eat, how you move, your relationships and your environment? Most doctors don’t even weigh in on these things. But at Parsley we give you a tailored personalized prescription for what you should be eating, how to manage stress, what supplements to take and how to exercise. Sure we prescribe drugs and refer to great specialists but those aren’t the only tools in our tool basket. We also include health coaching for free in your membership because support in making behavior change is critical. And we offer more advanced diagnostic testing than anywhere else – our testing looks at hormones, genetics, microbiome, nutrient deficiencies and inflammation, to name a few, in ways that go far beyond your regular primary care doctor.
As a result of this unique approach we’re much better at meeting the needs of who we are as a population today. Over 60% of American adults have at least 1 chronic illness – that’s 153 million people. Our approach is better at moving the needle for these conditions – lowering cost, reducing prescription drugs and helping people feel better. We also work with people who are well but optimizing their health, for instance people who have had a parent diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or have a family history of heart disease – more and more of us want to get ahead of our health.
What does thriving mean to you?
Thriving is about knowing when I feel good, knowing when I don’t, and having the tools to get back to feeling good when I don’t feel well. Knowing that my body is this incredible, powerful, wise, dynamic, organism that functions beautifully when supported in the right ways is incredibly empowering.
What are you most looking forward to now in general?
We’re opening Parsley Health’s LA flagship in West Hollywood in October, and we just launched our first stand-alone diagnostic test for assessing hormone balance. And on a personal level I’m pregnant with my second and due in January!