Getting Patients Walking (and Talking) With Doctors

An invite from one doctor to his patients became a national movement. Learn more about Walk with a Doc, a nonprofit program with thousands of participants across 46 states.
Cardiologist David Sabgir, MD, (center) is the Walk with a Doc founding CEO and board president. Credit: Walk with a Doc

During his training at Ohio State University Hospitals more than a decade ago, David Sabgir, MD, discovered that only a tiny fraction of his patients were physically active.

“I was seeing a ton of sedentary behaviors throughout my residency and then in cardio fellowship," says Sabgir, now a noninvasive cardiologist. He devised what he thought would be a simple fix: "I’ll just get everybody to go walk,” he recalls.

But his patients didn't follow his advice, so Sabgir invited them to meet him and his family for a walk in a Columbus, Ohio, park one weekend. He describes it as “a magical moment” that soon evolved into a weekly outing with 50 to 100 patients, hospital staff, and community members participating.

That was the start of Walk with a Doc (WWAD), a nonprofit dedicated to getting people walking and connecting with physicians in an informal setting. Since its inception in 2005, the program has grown to 366 U.S. chapters in 46 states and spread to 18 countries. Student-led Walk with a Future Doc programs have started taking shape as well. So far, WWAD estimates that 2,500 to 3,000 physicians have participated in the program nationally.

Patients find the walks transformative, says Sabgir, in large part because of the camaraderie and support. One participant, for example, started out able to walk only a mile and now hikes around the world and runs marathons.

“We have a lot of regulars, and a lot of new walkers. It’s very powerful,” Sabgir says. “I consider the Walk a gift.”

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

A Walk in the Park

It’s easy to start a Walk with a Doc (WWAD) chapter, says David Sabgir, MD, who heads the nonprofit. Interested physicians can contact WWAD, which provides different membership options and various tools, such as “prescription pads” to prescribe walking for patients. Hospitals and practices typically cover the costs for their participating doctors, Sabgir says, but the organization also offers many scholarships.

A talk, then a walk

Each WWAD outing starts with a doctor or future physician giving a brief talk on a health topic, followed by a half-hour or hour-long walk. WWAD chapters can opt to walk weekly, biweekly, or monthly.

According to Sabgir, a significant draw for patients is the opportunity to connect with physicians. Participants, often having questions, are pleased to “know that the doctors will be there for an hour, and they’re all theirs for that time.”

But WWAD chapter leaders say they definitely benefit as well.

Albert Barrera, a 2016 University of Florida (UF) premed graduate who is applying to medical school, initiated the WWAD chapter in Gainesville, Fla., after being inspired by Sabgir at a medical conference last year. “I loved his mission and vision for health education and promotion of physical activity,” says Barrera.

Barrera is working with leaders of a UF College of Medicine integrative health interest group and others to attract participants. “We are teaming up with our hospital’s employee wellness program to help with marketing. Our doctors are personally inviting patients. Our med students are spreading the word throughout the College of Medicine. We [are] ready to accommodate anyone wanting to walk,” says Barrera.

Barrera is determined to help patients who need community support get moving. “I just love people’s reactions when they break through barriers that they believed were not possible to overcome,” he says. “I know that Walk with a Doc will gain participants who have not gone outside for physical activity in a long time. When they breathe the fresh air, feel a drop of sweat go down their foreheads, and feel an energy rush at the end of our walk, they will realize that their health is in their hands, or, in this case, feet.” 

Students take the lead

Joan Dorn, MS, PhD, chair of the Department of Community Health and Social Medicine at The City University of New York (CUNY) School of Medicine, helped pioneer Walk with a Future Doc, or WWFD, after joining CUNY in 2014. She had worked previously on WWAD with Sabgir.

“I thought it would be a great idea to start Walk With a Future Doc among our medical students,” says Dorn, who began by showing a WWAD video to members of the school’s student government over lunch.

“The students were excited and quickly formed committees to get things started,” she says. “To promote WWFD and invite our neighbors to walk with us, students went door-to-door to community organizations, including schools, churches, NYPD precincts, and the YMCA” near the Harlem-based school.

“It’s about helping our students gain confidence to talk to their future patients about physical activity and how important it is for health and well-being.”

Joan Dorn, MD
The City University of New York School of Medicine

Dorn stresses that “the students are completely in charge of the walks. They kick each one off with a short informational talk about a current health topic. They select the route. They wrap things up by offering congratulations, thanks, and a healthy snack at the end of the walk.”

University faculty, staff, and students at CUNY School of Medicine—whose curriculum is a seven-year BS-MD program—all participate. So do high school students in the School of Medicine’s pipeline program, New York City police trainees, and students from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “We’re always looking for new groups to walk with and new events to join,” says Dorn.

The CUNY group's goal is to promote physical activity among community members—and future physicians, notes Dorn. “I love to see our medical students adopt walking as a way to stay healthy while managing an intense medical school curriculum."

But WWFD is also a leadership and professional development program. "It’s about helping our students gain confidence to talk to their future patients about physical activity and how important it is for health and well-being,” says Dorn.

"It’s wonderful to watch the ease and confidence with which they give the opening talk and engage in conversation with the walkers, many of whom they just met for the first time.”

At the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University in North Haven, Conn., members of the Lifestyle Medicine Student Interest Group recently got their school’s walking group off the ground. So far it has attracted mostly students, faculty, and staff, says Jennifer Rockfeld, MD, assistant professor of medical sciences and one of the chapter’s leaders. They’ve had only a trickle of community members because the school isn’t attached to a local hospital with a ready patient pool, she explains.

“We’re thinking of putting up flyers in groceries stores, libraries” and plan to roll out messages on social media, says Rockfeld. Part of the hope at the School of Medicine is to build ties with the surrounding community. But mostly leaders want to emphasize the benefits of walking.

“What my goal is, and I think the students too,” says Rockfeld, “is to show that we think physical activity is an important part of health and wellness.”