Hairstylists, Acupuncture, and Instagram: Unexpected Inflection Points Along My Personal Patient Journey
You learn a lot about yourself when you have a serious health challenge. I certainly did. But I also learned some key lessons for my fellow healthcare marketing professionals. Patient journeys can be as instructive as they are individual. Here’s mine.
In April 2022, after my second bout with COVID, I’d lost my sense of taste and smell, and my appetite had all but disappeared for more than a week. So when I hopped on the scale, I expected a modest but welcome weight loss. Instead, I was 6.5 pounds heavier! I’d done my share of bingeing Netflix in bed as I recuperated, but surely that didn’t explain all of that gain. I promised myself I would drink more water, get back into my workout routine, and try to avoid stress. I was sure that I could reverse these climbing numbers.
I started running and lifting weights again. I also decided to do something about the hip pain that had been limiting my cardio sessions, so I made appointments with my primary care physician (PCP) and an orthopedist. I even made an appointment with an acupuncturist at the suggestion of my hairstylist. Don’t scoff—you get plenty of sage advice while you wait for your highlights to develop.
The acupuncturist was an incredible woman who listened closely to what was happening in my life and how I was feeling and then employed her skills to help me feel better. She often put needles in my stomach to help combat my constant belly bloat, as well as in my ears and scalp to stimulate thinking before a stressful client pitch.
Next was the orthopedist, who ordered an X-ray of my hip. Because the scan didn’t show an obvious injury, he settled on a diagnosis of tendonitis. He recommended that I stay away from running and prescribed physical therapy and a pain reliever for flares.
After waiting 5 months for an appointment, I finally saw my PCP. Admittedly, I had high hopes since, as a generalist, I thought she would be able to sort out my sense that something was generally off with me. I passionately described all of my nebulous symptoms and answered a few basic questions about what was happening in my life. After just 12 minutes, I walked out with a diagnosis of probable stress and a prescription for a stool test to make sure I didn’t have GI bleeding.
I was deflated. I already knew that my life was jam-packed with potential stressors, but isn’t that standard when working full-time and raising kids? And I was certain I would have noticed any unpleasant bleeding. Thankfully, that test turned out to be negative, but I couldn’t help feeling the same about that doctor’s visit.
After clinic visits, exams, physical therapy, X-rays, and one very icky test, I really had no more answers than when I started. Perhaps this was all inevitable, and I just had to accept becoming a different, slightly rounder version of myself at age 40. One day, while lying flat on my back with 50 needles in me, I told my acupuncturist about this newfound resignation. She chuckled and asked me if I would be open to one more appointment. She told me about an Eastern medicine doctor who worked in her office, called Dr. A, who often diagnosed the “unsolvable” cases.
At this point, I was ready to explore any avenue. After 8 months, I wasn’t feeling any better, and even worse, the scale was still climbing. I made an appointment with Dr. A right away. Before the visit, he ordered a full blood panel—something that my PCP had not done—in addition to a couple of other tests. Despite his thoroughness, I was admittedly a bit skeptical because his approach was so different than what I'd experienced before. How much would this more holistic method help, where traditional Western methods had so far fallen short?
A lot, as it turned out. Dr. A spent a considerable amount of time discussing my labs and asking thoughtful questions. Yes, I had joint pain. Yes, I had experienced hair loss. Yes, my skin was very dry. Yes, I felt tired a lot. Yes, I was always cold. Check, check, check, check, and check! Dr. A told me that I had an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s disease, in which the hormone-producing cells of the thyroid are gradually killed off. I was disappointed with the diagnosis but honestly thrilled that I now had a single explanation for all of these seemingly disparate things going on with my body.
Dr. A started me on some supplements to help preserve my thyroid function, and I began researching my condition to understand it better. I booked an appointment with an endocrinologist and started following #hypothyroidism and #Hashimotos on Instagram. I began to feel a little more energetic, but I think I was mostly buoyed by my newfound knowledge.
While I had unleashed a flood of information, I didn’t have an organized way to put it into action, and the Hashimoto’s was continuing to damage my thyroid. By the time I got in to see the endocrinologist in December 2022, my thyroid function had diminished to the point that I needed supplemental hormones to help normalize my metabolism.
I’d like to say I experienced miraculous results from medication, but even with the levothyroxine, I still was over my desired weight and often felt bloated and sluggish. I didn’t start to feel significant improvements until I found a nutrition coach and a Hashimoto’s diet through social media. I began attending weekly training sessions in January 2023, learning all about my condition and how to make actionable changes that finally, in combination with medicine, made me feel and look better.
I could hardly believe it myself, but I was able to make major changes in my diet and activities without much effort or hand-wringing. I easily gave up dairy and gluten, dramatically increased my protein intake, ditched cardio in favor of strength training, and learned about macro-based eating. Within a month, I was feeling better and had lost 10 pounds. The best part was that learning to change my overall diet and fitness regimen made these improvements sustainable.
Despite my condition, I am now the healthiest I have been in my adult life. I know that continued progress and maintenance will be the longest part of my hypothyroidism journey, but I am armed with the education and support to keep it up.
Reflecting on my story as both a patient and a healthcare marketer, 5 key lessons for patient-focused programming emerged:
- If resources allow, widen the range of who you consider targeting with marketing messages. Diagnoses may occur through a multidisciplinary, nontraditional approach and by healthcare professionals (HCPs) or subject matter experts who have more time to really listen to a patient’s struggles.
- Healthcare information does not just come from HCPs but also through word of mouth and from influencers who may have shared experiences. The advice these people offer is often more frequent and sustained than the interactions that can take place in a hurried visit with a physician. Explore these channels as part of a comprehensive patient marketing mix.
- Healthcare is holistic and can’t be reduced merely to taking a pill. Resolving a patient’s issues takes a multifaceted approach—as well as ongoing engagement, coaching, and support—to achieve a successful outcome. Patient programs need to be built with these principles in mind.
- Patients and their families often have to self-advocate to achieve an accurate diagnosis and find solutions that can go beyond medication alone. As marketers, we need to embrace advocacy groups and patient communities that are critical to providing answers and accountability and promoting long-term adherence to treatment plans.
- There are many “stops along the way” in a patient’s journey, and they can take place outside the traditional healthcare system. Don’t overlook places where patients may be gathering information simply because they don’t include someone in a white coat. A well-mapped patient journey can reveal uncharted territories for communication that are likely less cluttered.
For more information about building comprehensive patient programming, email Lauret Geosits at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a time to discuss your brand’s patient strategy.