Walks let Piedmont doctors answer questions, bond with community

Annemarie Smith admits it: It’s been a long time since she visited a gynecologist. So when the 67-year-old Atlantan saw that an OB/GYN was leading a morning walk along the Beltline, she decided to tag along.

The 8:30 a.m. trek drew about a dozen others who showed up to spend an hour getting a workout while peppering a Piedmont Healthcare physician with questions. The hospital system has been sponsoring the free monthly “Walk With a Doc” outings around the metro area since spring.

For Smith, it meant the chance to get some basic information in a casual setting.

“It’s an informal way to talk with a doctor and get some advice if you have particular questions,” Smith said. “And I had a few. Because of my age, I hadn’t been to an OB/GYN for a while, and I didn’t think I needed to. But I got good information from the doctor; she was very personable.”

Meeting people in a less dramatic setting than an examination room opens the lines of communication, said Dr. Dingane Baruti, a physician at Piedmont’s urgent care clinic in Fayetteville who was enthused about the idea when he was approached about participating.

“It’s an opportunity for patients to ask questions without having to pay for a clinic visit,” he said. “For the docs, we get some sense of the types of patients we have in our community. So it’s positive all around.”

An Iraq War veteran, Baruti recently led a 60-minute session in Peachtree City by walking backward the entire time.

“I didn’t understand how we’d interact while walking, so for everyone to hear me, I had to walk backwards,” Baruti said with a laugh. “But I was in the military for 21 years, and I’d done a lot of that before. It set up some good interaction. I talked about basic health maintenance issues — cholesterol, hypertension — and didn’t use any doctor-speak at all, which I think they appreciated.

“I got a sense that everyone felt that they left with more knowledge about what they can do at home to decrease health risks,” he said. “And it was good for me, too. I’ve seen two of the people from the walk (in his office), and it was a much more comfortable, relaxed interaction.”

The “Walk With a Doc” idea grew out of focus groups Piedmont conducted last year, said Holly Lang, director of community benefit and external affairs.

“We heard what folks wanted and what they’d respond to, instead of us just putting out programs and hoping they’d work,” she said. “Everyone saw the hospital as part of their community, so we came up with the idea to have a doctor-led walk and were surprised to find a lot of communities throughout the country have been doing it, too. The important thing is that it’s led by a doctor who lives in that community.”

The walks are ideal for getting general health advice, particularly around diet, nutrition and exercise. “It’s definitely not ‘Hey, can you look at this thing on my arm?’ ” Lang said. “It’s more of an ongoing conversation. Folks do ask about themselves, but we try to keep it as general as possible.”

Peachtree City’s Pam Jewhurst, 48, is a cancer survivor who’s always looking for healthy lifestyle tips. During the walks she’s taken with a local doc, she’s also learned a range of health-related tidbits.

“What appealed to me was the chance to meet a doctor, and I’ve learned new things from each one,” she said. “For instance, I didn’t know about the local outpatient clinic, and I ended up using it when my daughter got a bad sinus infection. One doctor also showed us exercises to do while seated and answered lots of questions on general health issues. They were all brilliant, interesting people.”

Jewhurst and about 30 others were recently part of a walk led by Dr. Shyam Khanwani, a medical oncologist associated with Piedmont Fayette.

“It was my first time doing it, and it was a friendly way to meet patients,” he said. “You’re walking in shorts, and it’s very informal. I started with a brief talk on healthy eating and well-being, and then I tried to meet with everybody as we walked. We talked about general health as well as cancer and treatment. I told them if I didn’t know the answer, I’d get back to them. I loved it.”

Though the docs tend to refer to the walkers as “patients,” anyone is welcome to walk. Those who show up run the gamut of ages and abilities, from senior citizens to young families with kids and dogs in tow. At a March Beltline walk, Dr. Jyoti Sharma, a physician with Piedmont’s Heart Institute, led a diverse mix.

“I had about 30 people, from 20-somethings to one grandma, men and women,” she said. “We walked about 2 miles and talked about heart health, diet and exercise. It was a great way for me to meet people in the community and to get moving. If you’re always telling your patients to get out there, you should be doing it, too.”

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