The STAT Ten: Dean Ornish On Digital Health, Wisdom And The Value Of … – Forbes

STAT Ten is intended to give a voice to those in digital health. From those resonant voices in the headlines to quiet innovators and thinkers behind the scenes, it’s my intent to feature those individuals who are driving innovation–in both thought and deed. And while it’s not an exhaustive interview, STAT Ten asks 10 quick questions to give this individual a chance to be heard.  

Dean Ornish, MD is a fascinating and important leader in healthcare.  His vision has dared to question convention and look at health and wellness from a comprehensive and unique perspective.  He is a Clinical Professor of Medicine, UCSF Founder & President, nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute.

Dr. Ornish’s pioneering research was the first to prove that lifestyle changes may stop or even reverse the progression of heart disease and early-stage prostate cancer and even change gene expression, “turning on” disease-preventing genes and “turning off” genes that promote cancer, heart disease and premature aging. Recently, Medicare agreed to provide coverage for his program, the first time that Medicare has covered an integrative medicine program. He is the author of six bestselling books and was recently appointed by President Obama to the White House Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health. He is a member of the boards of directors of the San Francisco Food Bank and the J. Craig Venter Institute. The Ornish diet was rated #1 for heart health by U.S. News & World Report in 2011 and 2012. He was selected as one of the “TIME 100” in integrative medicine, honored as “one of the 125 most extraordinary University of Texas alumni in the past 125 years,” recognized by LIFE magazine as “one of the 50 most influential members of his generation” and by Forbes magazine as “one of the 7 most powerful teachers in the world.”

The lexicon of his career is filled with words that include innovator, teacher and game-changer.  And with this impressive career and his well-established ability to look at health and medicine in a new light, I thought i would be fun–and informative–to ask Dr. Ornish some questions about digital health.

Dean Ornish, MD

Dean Ornish, MD

 1. Digital health—many definitions and misconceptions.  How would describe this health movement in a sentence or two?

“Digital health” usually refers to the idea that having more quantitative information about your health from various devices will improve your health by changing your behaviors.  Information is important but it’s not usually sufficient to motivate most people to make meaningful and lasting changes in healthful behaviors.  If it were, no one would smoke cigarettes.

2. You’ve spoken of building deep and authentic connection among  patients as key element of your wellness programs.  Can digital health foster that connection or drive more “techno-disconnection”?

Both.  What matters most is the quality and meaning of the interaction, not whether it’s digital or analog (in person).  Study after study have shown that people who are lonely, depressed, and isolated are three to ten times more likely to get sick and die prematurely compared to those who have a strong sense of love and community.  Intimacy is healing.  In our support groups, we create a safe environment in which people can let down their emotional defenses and communicate openly and authentically about what’s really going on in their lives without fear they’ll be rejected, abandoned, or betrayed.  The quality and meaning of this sense of community is often life-transforming.  It can be done digitally, but it’s more effective in person.  A digital hug is not quite as fulfilling, but it’s much better than being alone and feeling lonely. 

3. How can we connect clinical validation to the current pop culture trends of “fitness gadgets”?

 Awareness is the first step in healing.  In that context, information can raise awareness, but it’s only the first step.

 4. Can digital health help link mind and body wellness?

 Yes.  Nicholas Christakis’ research found that if your friends are obese, your risk of obesity if 45% higher.  If your friends’ friends are obese, your risk of obesity if 25% higher.  If your friends’ friends’ friends are obese, your risk is 10% higher—even if you’ve never met them.  That’s how interconnected we are.  Their study also showed that social distance is more important than geographic distance.  Long distance is the next best thing to being there (and in some families, even better…).

5. Are there any particular area of medicine and wellness that might best fit in the context of digital health (diet, exercise, compliance, etc.)?

 They all do.

6. There is much talk on the empowerment of the individual and the “democratization of data”.  From your perspective are patients becoming more engaged and involved in their care?


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