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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 06:33 am

Physician, heal thyself

Local doc gets fit so that his patients will, too

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Dr. Craig Backs of Springfield recently lost more than 51 pounds. He is shown on the left before his weight loss and on the right afterward. Backs believes doctors should model the advice they give to their patients.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DR. BACKS

Lately, Dr. Craig Backs’ patients have been asking him if he’s all right. Backs lost more than 50 pounds over the past few months, but he’s not fighting cancer or some other disease. He’s getting fit, and he hopes other doctors will, too.

For Backs, former chief medical officer of St. John’s Hospital in Springfield and past president of both the Illinois State Medical Society and the Sangamon County Medical Society, getting fit is about more than just his own health. It’s about practicing what he preaches to his patients so they will take his advice seriously. He likens it to a doctor puffing on cigarettes while telling his patients they need to stop smoking.

“Whether doctors like to admit it or not, when it comes to health, we are not credible if we’re fat,” Backs said.

Backs’ transformation wasn’t originally his idea. He says his former neighbor, Mike Suhadolnik, a Springfield entrepreneur and fitness buff, called him one day out of the blue after seeing Backs’ overweight face in an advertisement.

“He asked me why doctors in this town don’t take better care of themselves,” Backs said. “There was a long pause, and I asked him, ‘Are you saying I’m fat?’”

Suhadolnik says his reply was gentle but honest.

“I told him he could be healthier, and that he was worth it,” Suhadolnik said.

With Suhadolnik’s help, Backs went from weighing 237 pounds to weighing only 186 pounds. He now works out most days of the week and eats a “paleo” diet that avoids sugar, dairy and grains. As his patients have begun to take notice, Backs has helped some of them start their own similar transformations. One patient is even Backs’ workout partner now. Backs says he now has more energy, more focus and a more positive outlook in general.    

Suhadolnik says he called Backs not only out of concern for Backs’ health, but because Suhadolnik recognized the influence doctors have in determining how the public views health.

“If President Obama and a doctor were seated in front of a crowd, they would be treated with equal reverence,” Suhadolnik said. Doctors consistently rank among the most trusted professions in the U.S., and they are widely regarded as health experts because of their extensive medical training.

But Backs admits that doctors often function as “sickness fixers,” dealing with specific ailments instead of helping people maintain their overall health. He says his typical advice to overweight patients used to consist of “diet and exercise” without much detail. Following his lifestyle change and accompanying weight loss, however, he now counsels patients on their specific diet choices and even demonstrates how to do certain exercises.

Dr. Paul Savage, president and chief clinician at Vidabem Treatment Center in Chicago, helped Suhadolnik lose a similar amount of weight as Backs. Savage’s private practice clinic specializes in hormone therapy, but the broader focus is on a patient’s overall health. He says most of his fellow doctors don’t put much effort into maintaining their health – often because they focus so intently on their patients that they neglect themselves.

But Savage says “busyness” is an excuse to avoid the hard work of staying in shape. Savage says the culture of the medical world tends to promote long hours and massive stress on doctors, which can lead to self-neglect.

“Doctors are very busy, and they convince themselves that they don’t have time to go work out,” Savage says. “I hear the same thing from lawyers, CEOs and housewives. It’s a matter of prioritization.”

By encouraging doctors to take better care of themselves, Savage, Suhadolnik and Backs hope to change the culture of the medical world, so that doctors hold their own well-being in the same regard as that of their patients. Backs likens a doctor’s responsibility for health to the emergency oxygen masks present in airplanes. If a doctor doesn’t put on his own oxygen mask first, Backs reasons, then the doctor won’t be able to help anyone else.

Savage says doctors have the potential to drastically improve the nation’s health, but they must lead by example.

“That’s a basic premise of life,” he said. “If you want people to follow you, lead them so they can follow you. You’ve got to lead rather than preach.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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