Here at WellBe, we talk a lot about functional medicine, which is a science-based system of medicine that focuses on finding the underlying cause of disease through a personalized approach to address the patient’s needs. But unfortunately, functional medicine hasn’t historically been widely available for people looking to get better. Robin Berzin, the founder and CEO of Parsley Health, is on a mission to change that. Parsley Health is the only primary care health practice based on functional medicine, with an approach that focuses on prevention, nutrition and wellness as well as cutting-edge medicine to help people get and stay healthy. Dr. Berzin sat down with us to talk about her professional journey and how Parsley Health intends to change the face of healthcare.
After graduating college, Dr. Berzin took a job in New York City prosecuting securities fraud with the U.S. Attorney. Like many college grads, she was tired, stressed, and not pursuing her true passion.
It was during this time, while in a yoga class, that she had a lightbulb go off: she used yoga to help keep herself healthy and sane, and knew that it could do the same for other people — but most people didn’t have the knowledge, motivation, or resources to tap into lifestyle choices like yoga that could help prevent disease. From her public health classes in college, she also knew that 86% of diseases today are chronic and lifestyle-driven. The combo of studying public health in college and seeing her dad’s experience as a primary care doctor showed her that medicine alone wasn’t the solution— that things like yoga, nutrition, meditation, and lifestyle changes needed to be the first line of defense in preventing disease.
In that moment, she made the decision to go to medical school so that she could help people heal and prevent disease in a more holistic way.
So Dr. Berzin went to med school at Columbia University, with the goal of getting a solid conventional medicine education that she could use to help patients in a nonconventional way.
“I went there with the desire to practice medicine in a different way,” she says, “which made me really different from day one at a place where pretty much everyone wants to be a cardiac surgeon.”
After graduation, Dr. Berzin trained at The Institute for Functional Medicine. As she got deeper into her training, Berzin realized that there was a vicious cycle perpetuating the lack of access to functional medicine in our country:
Because most practices and insurance plans don’t provide functional medicine care for patients, many med school students choose not to pursue functional medicine out of fear that they won’t be able to find a job afterward. She needed to find a way to not only make functional medicine accessible for people, but also provide a training ground for doctors who want to practice medicine this way.
And that’s exactly what she did. In 2015, Dr. Berzin founded Parsley Health, a boutique healthcare provider focused on functional medicine. Patients pay a monthly fee (which is lower than what some other functional docs charge for appointments) that includes 60- to 75-minute doctors’ appointments (hello, have you ever talked that long with your GP?), visits with a health coach, and unlimited email access to their team.
The Role of Health Coaches in Parsley Health
One of the things that sets Parsley Health apart from other healthcare practices is the fact that every membership includes a health coach. Dr. Berzin says that, because there’s not a lot of knowledge around what a health coach does (btw if you don’t know this, check out our explainer!), clients are often confused about why they need one.
“Well, think of it this way,” Dr. Berzin explains. “Even Beyonce has a voice coach. Every top athlete has a coach, right? IIf you want to perform at the highest level, you need support.” That’s what the health coaches at Parsley Health do: provide support.
When a member comes to Parsley Health, they get a seven-part plan, which includes:
The reason for part seven, according to Dr. Berzin, is that if a person only gets one through six, the likelihood is high that they’ll only do one or two (or maybe even zero) of those things. What’s more, there would be no data showing whether or not they’re actually getting better. A health coach solves both these issues.
Dr. Berzin knows that it’s very, very difficult for people to make lifestyle changes. “It’s hard for people who come in and they’re like, ‘Cheese is my lifeline and you’re going to take cheese away.’ And I say, ‘We’re just going to experiment with it. Cheese will be there for you at the end of the tunnel,’” she says.
It’s not just dietary changes that are tough. Dr. Berzin says that for many people, it’s a totally new thing to take supplements; for others, the idea of meditating is completely foreign, regardless of how much research there is proving the health benefits; for others, exercising consistently might feel impossible. The health coach is there to provide accountability and support, so that people can actually begin to make changes and see health improvements.
This holds true even for people who already care and know a lot about wellness (aka us, and you). “Even the people who are the most knowledgeable, they’ve done the Whole30, they know about gluten-free they know about healthy fats, they go to spin class four times a week, those people, by and large, still have health issues that can be dramatically improved with this seven-part plan,” Dr. Berzin says.
An Incredible Parsley Health Transformation Story
Dr. Berzin has worked with a lot of patients and witnessed many healing journeys in her time at Parsley Health. But there’s one journey, that of a young autoimmune patient, that sticks with her and reminds her of the power of a functional approach to medicine. It’s also a story that brings tears to her eyes, even years later.
When a 24-year-old woman visited Dr. Berzin with a severe autoimmune disease called Behcet’s autoimmune vasculitis, she was in bad shape. She had ulcers in her mouth that went all the way down her GI tract, and none of the conventional treatments were working. In fact, the patient had been “fired” by the top autoimmune doctor at Cornell because all of the drugs he’d given her had failed to produce any results. She came to Dr. Berzin feeling defeated, and hoping for a miracle.
The first thing that Dr. Berzin did was to set expectations. “This type of medicine is a process,” she explained. “We don’t have quick fixes, it doesn’t come overnight.” But Berzin knew that, at a minimum, she could help the patient feel better and address some of the other issues that had arisen because of her body-wide inflammation: insomnia, weight gain, and acne.
To start, Dr. Berzin prescribed some dietary changes, including removing common antigens, or food allergies, like gluten and dairy. She also had the patient do a gut-healing protocol to shift the bacteria in her gut, and ran a number of tests to determine nutrient deficiencies and inflammation.
Six weeks later, the patient returned — and Dr. Berzin was nervous. She didn’t think that the young woman would be better. She knew that her approach worked, but she also knew that it took time, and that it would take work to convince the patient to stick with it and keep working.
But when the young woman returned, this was not the case at all. She’d brought her mother, who was crying, and who said through tears, “Thank you for giving my daughter her life back.” In those six weeks, the young patient’s ulcers and acne had disappeared, she was sleeping through the night, and her excess weight had come off. The dietary adjustments had done what countless powerful steroids had failed to do. To this day, Dr. Berzin comes close to tears just recalling this moment.
Two years later, the patient is completely med-free, her inflammation level is within a normal range, and, most importantly, she knows what she needs to put in her body to remain healthy. Dr. Berzin feels great pride in this accomplishment, noting that “we not only saved her thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars in medications, and so many hours going to doctors she didn’t need to see, we put her in the driver’s seat of her health.”
When Will the Parsley Health Method Become Mainstream?
We’re firm believers that the kind of holistic, root-cause approach that Parsley Health takes should be available for everyone, but that’s definitely not the case currently. So we asked Dr. Berzin when she thinks this type of functional medicine will be the standard of care in the United States — and she had a remarkably specific answer.
According to Dr. Berzin, it takes an average of 17 years for new information to work its way into medical school training. “It’s really sad that it’s that slow,” she says, adding that she hopes Parsley Health can accelerate that by leading through example.
There are reasons to be hopeful, she says. For instance, the Cleveland Clinic has invested $60 million in a functional medicine center that’s lowering overall cost of care, while other forward-looking medical institutions, such as Kaiser and Stanford, are actively looking for ways to change and improve care.
“I think we could see insurance paying for this type of care in the next few years, easily,” Berzin says. “They’re already understanding that they have to innovate in order to survive.”
While the vision of the future of healthcare is still somewhat blurry, Berzin is optimistic that functional medicine will make its way into medical training and insurance plans, and hopes that they can knock that 17 years down closer to ten.
Conclusion: Dr. Robin Berzin’s Story and the Mission of Parsley Health
It’s clear to us that functional medicine — which, in short, is an approach to medicine that focuses on prevention and root-cause treatment — should be the standard of healthcare, but unfortunately that’s not the case in the United States. As a young college grad with a background in public health, Robin Berzin also understood the power of functional medicine, and made it her life’s mission to change the healthcare landscape.
With that goal in mind, she founded Parsley Health, the only primary care medical practice that takes a functional medicine approach to health. That means that each Parsley Health member gets a personalized plan that includes things like a nutrition guide, mental health support, supplement guidance, and a health coach. The idea is to help people feel get rid of chronic disease and feel better in the long-term, and not just to treat symptoms. In terms of when the Parsley Health approach will be the rule and not the exception, Dr. Berzin tells us that while the average time for new knowledge to be incorporated into medical practice is 17 years, she’s hopeful that Parsley Health can work it’s way into the mainstream in ten.
Watch the full WellBe interview with Dr. Berzin for more on Parsley’s data- and tech-forward approach to healthcare, how to get docs to really learn about nutrition in a useful way, how a stint in Europe spurred her to actually make Parsley Health happen, and much more. Plus, Dr. Berzin shared her advice on how to advocate for getting the healthcare you want and need to avoid disease and save money in the long run.
What do you think it will take to have functional medicine be the standard of care? Tell us in the comments below!