Dr. Robin Berzin, Founder & CEO of Parsley Health
Parsley Health is becoming a major disruptor in the healthcare industry. This rapidly growing medical practice is utilizing a functional medicine approach without the restrictions of health insurance; and they are on a mission to improve health and wellbeing in the most forward-thinking and holistic way.
The woman driving this movement is a true trailblazer named Dr. Robin Berzin. A graduate of Columbia University medical school and University of Pennsylvania undergrad, who has worked with Dr. Oz and Dr. Mark Hyman, Dr. Robin has such a refreshing, practical and mindful approach to medicine. Committed to an ever-evolving standard of problem-solving, I believe she is creating the next revolutionary wave of superior care, cutting-edge testing, and better overall health for all of her patients and Parsley Health members.
Below, please enjoy my impactful conversation with Dr. Robin Berzin as she explains how her passion for the mind-body connection fuels her, and how she has integrated these fundamentals into her innovative, metrics-proven business model.
- Founder & CEO of Parsley Health
- Columbia University Medical School graduate
- University of Pennsylvania graduate, Summa Cum Laude
- Certified Yoga Instructor & Meditation Teacher
- Recently announced $10MM in funding
Topics discussed in this conversation include:
- Why Dr. Robin became a doctor
- Working for Dr. Oz, Oprah, and Dr. Mark Hyman
- What exactly is "Functional Medicine"?
- The benefits of a membership model of healthcare
- Building corporate culture
- Why the healthcare system is broken and why it limits you
- Parsley Health's approach to disrupt this model
- Dr. Robin's daily ritual that keeps her in alignment
- The imperative importance of diet
- Metrics proven results of functional medicine
- The one thing that Dr. Robin prescribes to every single one of their patients
- How do you measure success?
- Parsley Health's plan for the next 5 years.
- Health benefits of meditation
- How to succeed as an entrepreneur
Dr. Robin Berzin is the Founder and CEO of Parsley Health. A Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Robin went to medical school at Columbia University - where she co-founded the physician communication app Cureatr – and later trained in Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. She is a certified yoga instructor and a meditation teacher, writes for a number of leading wellness sites, and speaks regularly for organizations including Stanford Medicine X, The Clinton Foundation, Health 2.0, Summit at Sea, and Further Future, on how we can reinvent health care.
First let's talk about what made you want to become a doctor?
It was actually my yoga practice. I wasn’t pre-med in college at all. Although when I look back I did have some interest in public health and nutrition during college, but it wasn't my thing at all. And after undergrad I was in New York, I was not loving my job. I was working as a paralegal at the United States Attorney's office – a very cool job, but it was not for me.
And I had never known anything about yoga to be honest with you growing up or in college or anything, but I started practicing yoga. And I just got really interested in the connection between the mind and the body. That drove an interest in health and wellness, I got interested in nutrition and this whole interest area snowballed.
And I was unhappy with my job at the time, so I sort of said, well what do I not like about my job? It's punitive. I sit at a desk all day. It’s an important job, but I don’t feel like I’m helping the world. And what do I love? I love yoga. I love nutrition. I'm really interested in this mind-body connection. I'm thinking back to all of the public health studies that I did in undergrad and all of that kind of coalesced for me to say: All right, well let me switch jobs. And I worked at NYU for a year in the psych research department and I wasn’t interested in psychiatry as a field per se, but what I was interested in was experiencing patient care.
And so that job for a year really gave me that. We did EKG’s, and we learned to draw blood, and we had patients… and I said “Okay I've experience this now, and do I want to get a Ph.D. or an M.D. or do I want to do something else with this? Do I want to be a yoga instructor?”
Well I did go on to do my yoga teacher training and teach yoga. For me, it just came together. I decided I really want to get my M.D. and be a doctor because I really like this patient-care thing and if I'm going to have the best foundation I can possibly have, I should get my M.D.
You're also super entrepreneurial - I read that you co-founded an app and did some work in the tech space. What was that experience like?
Yeah. During med school at Columbia, a lot of my classmates were like me, and had had other jobs, and were a little older and a little weird, and… you know I spent a lot of undergrad trading back and forth start-up ideas with one friend of mine. I had worked for Dr. Oz as a producer for his radio show, so I had a media experience. I worked for Oprah while working for Mehmet. And you know it was around the time that Facebook was coming out –and if we can even remember a time before Facebook! But it was a time that these social media tools were coming out and technology was really changing the way that communicated… and that hadn't yet translated into medicine.
So fast forward towards the end of medical school. All these start up ideas we had had coalesced around this idea: Why can't we have an app for doctors that lets us communicate groups securely and seamlessly in the hospital instead of waiting for landlines and pagers and fax machines? Which is how people, even today, communicate. And so it seems kind of basic now but it was very revolutionary at the time. We built the app and started the company and so that was my first foray into building a company. It was my first foray into building technology for healthcare. But I really got bitten by that bug and so it [entrepreneurship] remained an interest of mine. [This was during med school, during residency.]
So let’s talk about Parsley Health! Let's start with...
What is “Functional Medicine”?
Parsley Health is bringing together the best of primary care, the best of cutting edge—what we think of as conventional Western medicine–and blending it with an approach called functional medicine or functional health. So not a lot of people have heard of functional medicine or functional health but ironically, it's been around for a while. Basically this, to me, just means smart medicine. It says instead of band-aiding the symptom with a drug or procedure, let's try to fix the root cause and by fixing the root cause of disease not only can we deal with whatever you've got going on now but we can help you from down the road. It also says the body is an interconnected matrix; it's an interconnected ecosystem – everything, our organs, etc. In conventional medicine, we’ve sort of separated things out: Cardiology is over here, Neurology is over there, GI is over there, and psychiatry is over there… and unfortunately that's not reality. Our organ systems are all interconnected. Our minds and our bodies are interconnected, and then we are an ecosystem with our microbiomes, our environment, our relationships, our food…
So functional medicine says instead of just looking at a very small narrow view of the body in one organ system at a time, let's look at the whole body as an interconnected matrix or ecosystem.
I learned about it when I actually happened to work for Dr. Oz, I met Dr. Mark Hyman and I learned about the Institute Functional Medicine which is training thousands of doctors on how to practice medicine this way. And then later on I learned about the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, whereas the Cleveland Clinic, which is the top hospital in the country, has invested tens of millions of dollars in a functional medicine center and that's showing incredible results.
That's where I’m learning about all of this and watching this happen. And then also at the same time, in my training at Columbia and Mount Sinai, I just said OK we need all of this. You don't need one or the other. We need all of this. Frankly, the functional approach—it just makes sense. And it makes sense in today's world, where 86 percent of our diseases are chronic and lifestyle-driven. So we're living ourselves sick.
For the most part, unless you walk out and get hit by a bus, or there are things that just show up out of nowhere certainly, certain types of cancer, certain infections, etc… But for the most part, 86 percent of the time, our diseases are things we’re living our way into. And yet our medicine, from prior, is not really organized in a way that best helps us thrive. So, I don't know why, but I think it was my yoga training combined with my health tech start-up life and media training, all of that came together. And I said OK, there's got to be a way to bring all of these things together in this functional approach to help with best of conventional medicine and with a content platform and a brand right and a technology layer, and how can we bring all those things together? And that is Parsley Health!
I love that functional medicine is always looking for the root cause as opposed to just band-aiding things with prescriptions and things like that. And of course once in a while you need the prescription. But you're really trying to make sure that that’s kind of the last resort.
And there’s a lot of bifurcation in medicine. There's conventional medicine, where the only answer is a drug. Then there’s integrative or eastern medicine or holistic medicine, where a lot of times it's like “drugs are evil”, and we'll do everything possible without a drug. And we [Parsley Health] sort of say, well both of those perspectives are a little silly. If the way that you’re eating is the number one driver of diabetes and heart disease, Why don't we change how you eat? If you have a urinary tract infection, then let's give you an antibiotic and cure that. So it's really about what makes sense.
Parsley Health is a membership model. So give me an example of what people would value, being a member at Parsley Health, that they can't get through in-network, insurance-covered doctor.
Yes. There's so much that we do that a regular doctor doesn’t. So first of all, our doctors in and of themselves, are not only trained in conventional medicine, they’re also trained in functional medicine. And then they also train with us. So your doctor, the moment you walk in the door, has a whole other layer of training of how to use specific nutrition protocols, lifestyle change, meditation, supplement protocols, and next generation testing that regular doctors don’t do: Things like genomics, the microbiome, hormones, toxins... We do a lot of testing in the regular doctors don’t. First of all, in your membership you've got access to a kind of doctor that has a completely different training, on top of the regular training. Then, from there your membership includes all your visits with your doctor. So you get five doctor visits. The average time is about 50 minutes, and the first visit is 75 minutes.
Most people spend 15 minutes with their doctor, not an hour and 15 minutes, ever! Let alone just as a first visit. That's just our first visit where we do a really in-depth intake. We do a physical exam. We put a personalized plan together for you. There's no extra co-pays or anything for that. Then you also get a personal health coach. And a health coaches have really proven their value. Research says that people who work with a health coach achieve their goals twice as often as people who don’t. And so in addition to your membership, it includes (no extra fee) visits with your health coach. And your coach is there to help you make those changes. So if I, your doctor, recommend this, that, and the other thing, and you don't do any of it, well then you don't get better.
So they’re holding you accountable to the plan?
They're holding you accountable, they're making sure you understand it… Some people don't know how to cook a certain way or how or eat in a healthy way. Some don’t know what gluten is. Other people need help with supplements. Other people need help with testing. It's like your personal assistant for being a Parsley member because we want to make sure all of this is doable. And if you meet with your coach you're like, “Listen, Dr. Robin gave me ten different things to do and I'm really not going to do them, but I can start with this one thing. Well the health coach is going to help you start with that. And then on top of all of the visits, you also get so much more. You get unlimited messaging so you can write us a message any day 365 days a year.
There's always somebody there for you. You can write us the questions you have –you don't always have to have a visit to get a question answered or to get a refill or to get a test repeated. You’re a member! So anything you need in between we’re there. And then you also get a whole bunch of really cool perks and benefits. We have a lot of discounts and things with our partners: healthy food delivery, thrive market membership, free membership to Headspace, the meditation app. There's so many cool things that you get a s a member here. And then on top of all that you get this crazy cool technology layer that we fill that lets you see all of your information, message, schedule online. So it's all really easy.
My next question is about your corporate culture.
You’ve expanded now to a few locations to the west coast and one here in NYC and you're expanding outwards and onwards. How have you been able to foster corporate culture?
In terms of the doctors, we’ve had hundreds of doctors that have reached out to us. And maybe a thousand health coaches at this point who reached out to us. So many people are looking to do medicine in this more technology driven, smarter and more whole person kind of way. When we first started out it was hard because we were so small, and now that we've grown a bit we have reputation and people are finding us, which is awesome.
In terms of corporate culture, you know, it's something that we're building every day. We have a set of team and company values that include things like “we seek to live and work in flow”, that include things like “we are seekers and solvers”. So we look for people who are really proactive, who are problem solvers, but who also want to live in balance and in flow. That’s what we look for when we hire people. And that's all brought to us by the amazing people we hire.
In terms of [the culture] we put into place, most medical practices are healthcare companies don't have annual team retreats upstate, and internal cooking competitions, and team lunches. And every single week we have speakers and experts come in to give talks to all of our doctors and coaches so that we can continue learning. We have a weekly “Grand Round” with all of our physicians together and talk about cases and learn. So we've just developed this really collaborative, supportive team base culture. You know, a lot of doctors are out there practicing medicine alone. And even if they’re in some big institution, oftentimes they feel really alone. And we're extremely collaborative and team-based, and that for me is what we're looking for – we’re looking for folks who seek and solve problems, are super proactive, and they’re here to be part of building something bigger than themselves. We want people [who understand] it's not about “them”, it's about “us” and the “we”.
But on top of that, we want to create this atmosphere where they get a lot of support in reverse, and we support a lot of team building.
Why do you consider Parsley Health a conscious enterprise? What higher purpose are you serving here?
I am lucky that I can honestly say that we help change people's lives every single day. I mean, our bread and butter is helping heal, nourish, educate, transform and inspire. And that is really gratifying; and it is just awesome to have a company that's dedicated to doing that for as many people as possible.
What are some of the problems that you see right now in health care?
There are lots of problems in healthcare all over the place that I won’t touch with a ten foot pole. Somebody way smarter than me will deal with that. But [the healthcare industry] has created a system that's really only responsive to the large insurance companies. And so what that does is it means that you aren’t paying directly, you’re paying indirectly. You are paying for your healthcare, and it’s very expensive. But you’re paying indirectly for it, so it’s not very responsive to you. It's not personalized and it's really hard to innovate; because if you think about it; if you're a group of doctors or a doctor who wants to do something differently and they're dependent on insurance dollars, well, they can’t. They're literally immediately out of business.
That, to me, has kind of hijacked our industry. And that's unfortunate because it's kept technology from keeping pace in medicine, it’s kept culture from keeping pace in medicine, it's kept new ways of thinking from keeping pace.
You know, new information takes, on average, 17 years to work its way to general medical education. And we have all these new understandings of the body that are widely available, new tests, new understanding of the microbiomes, new understanding of nutrition that are out there. And yet [the medical field] just lurks along and just kind of gets stuck.
And so, why I’m so excited about Parsley being a direct to consumer service: We are responsive to you. So we're able to actually iterate and innovate and build something that’s designed around you. That is here and now and of the future. That is truly a consumer-driven service. And by building it this way, by putting it in our DNA from the brand, to the technology, to the services we offer, that's not something you can un-do. And so from there, (in the long run we may except insurance directly) right now we help you get your out-of-network benefits back.
But right now we don’t accept insurance directly because we don't want to be the kind of business that can’t innovate because all of a sudden the old thing is what insurance pays for, and the new thing, which is a thousand times better for you, we can't do it because we can't get paid. And so that, to me, is where Parsley can have a huge impact. It’s in the way that the system is structured.
Now, the other big area is that our unique approach to health care is truly unique. We're blending the best of conventional medicine and functional health like I said. Our outcomes data is insane. We’re literally curing autoimmune disease, curing heart disease, curing gastrointestinal issues, curing infertility, by looking at the body in a different way. And that, at scale, as we grow, will shift the entire industry simply because we already have the data to prove it. So from the model to the medicine, I see a lot of people doing just the model, or I see a lot of people trying to make a medical service more technology forward. But at the end of the day, those things are just kind of like window dressing if you're not doing medicine truly differently and Parsley is the only medical service that I see doing it truly differently.
Do you think that consumers or patients need to get out of the framework of thinking that you have to only go to places that are covered by your insurance? Do you think that that's going to start the wave that eventually health insurance carriers will catch on to?
Yeah. Absolutely. If you did your car what insurance would pay for, your car would kind of be out of business, right? Unfortunately, insurance I think is essential, as it’s important for prescription drug coverage, it’s important for hospital coverage, it’s important for labor delivery, it's important for testing and laboratory testing, it’s important for so many things. However, if you're only willing to go to things that insurance covers, you have to understand that you'll be going to the lowest common denominator of the bare basics that they're willing to cover. And if you feel your health is worth more than not you may have spend a little bit extra out of pocket. And a lot of people do. It’s funny… People spend five bucks a day on coffee which equals 150 bucks a month. And yet they won’t spend $150 a month for Parsley membership. And you're like well; what if you spend a little less on coffee or make coffee at home?
They will spend 40 dollars a class on a fitness class that they do once a week and another 15 dollars on their juice, which is just spiking their blood sugar, and that all together is more than a Parsley membership, but they won’t spend it on a highly credentialed doctor, health coach and team to be their “go-to” any time they need them for their health. I also think that we, as a consumer base, myself included, we’ve all be kind of schooled, we’ve been taught to think about medicine in a certain way: We only deal with it if it’s an absolute disaster and we need it. We only do what the insurance pays for. We're not proactive. We don't have direct skin in the game. And that's not true for everybody, but for a lot of people. And you know, when you think about, in the grand scheme of things, how much money you can save by being proactive about your health you're talking about 150 bucks a month versus hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime.
Do you have a regular ritual or practice that keeps you going?
What keeps you from losing it?
Omg, so many things. I mean, I do all the things… I eat incredibly well… I eat what we prescribe personally, which is our core eating plan, our plant-based paleo eating plan. So I’m eating proteins, greens, and healthy fats for every meal. I mainly eat a plant-based diet with a lot of healthy fish and occasionally some animal protein but not a lot. So I’m getting a lot of fiber, I’m getting a lot of healthy fats, nuts and seeds, whole grains. I avoid foods that I’m allergic to, like dairy, which made me break out. So instead of spending, you know, thousands of dollars on the dermatologist, I just don’t eat dairy and then I don’t break out. Which is the case for many people. Unfortunately people don't realize that they're spending all this money on peels and creams when it's really just dairy.
My diet my foundation. I mean, I’m the sort of a person [that] won't eat processed, horrible food. I just won't do it. I will skip that meal.
When you do eat meat, do you make sure it’s organic and grass fed?
Well I do eat red meat, and I don't eat chicken nor poultry nor pork, but I do eat grass-fed, hormone-free, sustainably, ethically raised red meat once a month.
And it’s not that my diet has to be everybody's diet. At Parsley we really personalize it. Some people do great using intermittent fasting. Some people, that does not work for so well. And we have to do testing to make sure that you're OK on any particular nutritional plan. Some people have a lot of food sensitivities others have none at all.
So nutrition for me is the bedrock of everything. And then I have a really regular meditation practice and a really regular yoga practice. Yoga is my love. Oh my gosh, I'm not really into vinyasa flow. I like to move, I like to sweat, I like to twist. I like to attempt to stand on my hands, which I don’t do very well.
So I really walk the walk.
Do you use an app to meditate?
You know, I don't. My husband uses headspace every single day and meditates with our sun in the morning. Our son is one [year old], so he just crawls around while meditation is happening. I have been meditating for a long time and have some other practices that I use. I’m not an app-meditator, I’m kind of doing my own thing. I also meditate at night – I’m a night meditator. I like break all the supposed rules of meditation. Yeah but that's something that I really find game-changing.
We actually prescribe meditation at Parsley Health to almost every patient. We prescribe it more than medication.
That’s amazing. And what are the results that you’ve found with that?
Oh my gosh. I mean, incredible results. We’re helping people get off of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. We're helping people understand that their gut and their brain are very connected and that you can actually resolve your reflux and your IBS and other things. They're learning to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system through meditation. We see people understanding that their brain and their bodies are intimately connected. And we know that stress is the number one trigger for an autoimmune disease. So if we help you learn how to do a regular stress-reduction practice, then - wow how cool - that you don't have as many autoimmune flair ups. So again the body is it’s own ecosystem and it all ties together. So at Parsley the brain and the body are always part of everybody's plan.
How do you measure success?
Do you consider Parsley Health to be can be successful today?
You know that’s such an interesting question. I measure success in a number of ways; personally, and then I measure it for the company.
So for the company, I measure success as: Are we living up to our mandate every single day to offer the most cutting edge, the most thoughtful, the most whole person and transformative medicine, with the best user experience that we possibly can; both for patients and doctors and coaches. I would say yes we are successful. And so I try to take the attitude every day that we've already been successful. We've already transformed thousands of lives. So if we just keep doing what we're doing that is enough. Building our new centers and building up the technology layer, hiring more team members, growing our membership and creating more online tools and programs.
All that stuff is gravy. It doesn’t mean that success doesn't look like those things too. But I just try to have the attitude that we're already successful and now just keep making it better.
And then personally, I try to remember that like none of this matters if I’m a wreck. And occasionally I’m stressed and I'm going to be a wreck because it's hard to run a company and to start something new. I'm human and I get stressed. I’m a perfectionist; and if I weren’t I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. So then I get even more stressed. But if doing this means that I'm miserable, I can't be there for my friends and family and my health falls apart. Well that's crazy, right? So my goal, at least in how I define success for myself, is that I’m calm, I'm energized, I'm free from illness, I feel good in my body, and I have great relationships across both professionally and personally. And then I’m able to give my team my highest.
I love this quote that I shared recently Instagram: You don't need to quit. You just need to rest.
Building anything is a long game. And it's a long game of remembering the going will get tough but if it happens, you don't need to quit. Sometimes you need to rest. And so that toggles on and off. I'm certainly not a master of [that] at this point, but it's something I'm very aware I need to constantly work on.
What are your goals for the next five years for Parsley Health? Where are you and where is Parsley Health five years from today?
Oh my gosh. We are gearing up to really be everywhere. When I say everywhere, I mean everywhere. So we'll continue to build up centers across the country. To begin with, in places and cities where we already are, because there's a lot of room to grow in cities where we already exist, before we go further afield. But then bringing Parsley centers and doctors and medical care other places.
It looks like having incredibly robust outcomes data that is so powerful that insurance is being used to pay for our care because of the outcomes that we've created. It looks like having an online platform that literally, through our online tools that we're building, through machine learning and AI, through data, we’re able to serve anyone anywhere and give them support in achieving their health. And we’re building all that stuff out. Whether it's through content, through programming, through smart technology, telemedicine, I really want to be able to help anyone anywhere, even if they don't live near a center. So that's where we're going. In the meantime, we’re just try and keep doing what we're already doing every day which is offering this incredibly new and superior form of medical care.
How do you see the state of the world and the health care five years from today?
And how do you see yourself and Parsley contributing to it? Is there an epidemic that specifically concerns you?
Oh gosh, I don't know. Those are forces that are beyond my pay grade. Well, I mean we’re breaking/have broken the health care system with this massive chronic disease burden that is totally preventable and often reversible. And we're spending all this money on drug R&D [research and development] for type 2 diabetes which people could just not eat certain foods and not get. So, to me that's just crazy. And there's financial imperatives, certainly, that have nothing to do with us that drive that. But I hope that we at Parsley are able to set a new standard of care and are part of shifting the health care system to do things differently. And if we can do that, the great!
What’s a valuable piece of advice that you’d like to give other entrepreneurs that are creating businesses with conscious intentions like you are?
You know, I see a lot of businesses that I would call “a solution looking for a problem”. And I get that people get excited about creating things, but I would just sit down with yourself and understand that if you're gonna build something from the ground up, you have to believe in it and be passionate about it in every fiber of your being. You have to deeply understand that problem, whether it's your problem or somebody else’s problem. Understand how to fix it, and understand what's missing, and understand how you really are bringing something to the world that nobody else is, that fixes it. And then execute on that. Because anyone can have an idea. But putting an idea into motion and to get it anywhere requires incredible tenacity, incredible resilience, you have to get back up when things just do not work, when people do not do what you want them to do, when you don't have the money that you feel you should have. When a zillion things I was just describing entrepreneurs every day making 99 problems, and I fix 16 of them and 32 are evergreen and another 10 just take care of themselves if I just wait and don't do anything.
So there's just the learning of that. And if you're starting out, to get you through all the nastier parts, resilience it requires, the problem solving part, you have to be passionate about it. You have to be driven to truly believe deeply that your solution is not looking for a problem - that there is a clear problem that it’s solving, and that you're really passionate about solving that problem. Because at the end of the day you have to sort of be more passionate about the problem solving than the solution that you've built. Because the solution itself is going to constantly be changing. And that’s what gets me through when things are really stressful or really crazy. I'm constantly learning how to do things that I didn’t know how to do yesterday but I have to do today. And that is a great learning experience but it's also that I'm anchored by my passion for the problem.