/ Podcast / Harnessing Data to Enhance Healthcare, With Omar Shaker

Harnessing Data to Enhance Healthcare, With Omar Shaker

How can tracking health data enhance overall healthcare? This week, Sandi sits down with FMCA graduate Omar Shaker to discuss doctor burnout and health data. After working as a doctor, Omar experienced burnout firsthand. He thought he was the only one, but it turns out burnout is common among healthcare workers. After this experience, he looked into ways doctors can re-engage with their patients. Turns out, the answer can be found in data tracking.

Episode Highlights

  • How is technology leading to doctor burnout.
  • Why tracking data is important for patients.
  • How to get doctors interested in data tracking.
  • Why tracking is related to better health.
Omar Shaker

Meet the Guest

Omar Shaker

Founder of Shaker Health


Omar Shaker is an FMCA graduate and functional medicine health coach. He is a clinical data specialist and author who has presented on clinician burnout. Omar was named one of the 50 most influential global digital health leaders by HIMSS 2021 Future50 Committee for his work on founding Health 2.0 Egypt


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Episode Transcript

Sandi: It is my pleasure to welcome to the podcast Omar Shaker. He has a very interesting story to tell. He studied with FMCA and is a graduate. He is a health coach, and he also has a background as a medical doctor and a data analyst. So, welcome, Omar. It’s a pleasure to talk with you.

Omar: Same here. Thank you so much, Sandra, for this interview and everything you do for functional medicine and health coaching.

Sandi: Thank you. So, would you tell everyone what attracted you to becoming a health coach because you did not originally start out in this field? And what inspired you… Tell us about your background.

Sandi: So, would you tell everyone what attracted you to becoming a health coach because you did not originally start out in this field, and what inspired you? Tell us about your background.

Omar: So, my background started in medicine. I thought that I was going to be a doctor for most of my childhood, and I was always… I grew up with a father that is a surgeon, so I spent a lot of time around the hospital. And my mother was an IT manager, so I spent… I like to joke that I spent a lot of my childhood either in a waiting room or in a mainframe.

So, at a certain point in my medical career, specifically during my internship year, I felt very burnt out, and I was ironically in poor health myself, and I wanted to take both a new step in my career and also start learning about my own well-being. And I realized that, in medicine, you learn a lot about sickness but not a lot about health.

And I switched into data analytics. I started working for insurance companies and hospitals to help them analyze clinical data specifically, and I realized that they also do not look at data from a health perspective. It’s all about how many sick people are we serving and how can we optimize that and maybe prediction of diseases when it comes to more of the cutting-edge stuff that they do but not really about how can we maintain people’s health overall?

So, I found myself burning out several times throughout my career for different reasons. And it’s really easy to make the devil out of the institution you just left or the career you just left, but I realized that a lot of it had to do with how I was viewing my own health and my mindset.

And so I found FMCA in 2019. I started hearing about functional medicine, and I was immediately attracted to the idea of using lifestyle as medicine. And I joined the program in 2020, and it has completely transformed my life in terms of mainly helping me unlearn a lot of the stuff that I learned in medicine.

And even in the first module, when we learn about the difference between the doctor and the health coach, and how the health coach shows up and asks people what they want to work on rather than giving them a list of things and telling them, “Come back in three months,” which is what we do in medicine. And so that has shifted my mindset dramatically. And also when I started revisiting my career in data analytics, I realized that functional medicine holds a huge potential for people to really own their health and start owning their data as well.

And so that intersection between functional well-being and data analytics is what I’m most interested in and is what I started my current company to tackle and help other functional medicine practices and hospitals explore that kind of intersection because I think it’s a really powerful combo.

Sandi: What a journey. Are you finding that there are more and more physicians who are exhausted and burned out and disenchanted with our current healthcare system?

Omar: Oh, absolutely. And I think we’re all hearing about it in the news. And, you know, Sandra, when I was burnt out in 2010 and decided to leave medicine, I thought I was the only one. I thought I was so unique. And we tend to think that we’re the only ones going through this, especially with doctors that find it hard to admit that they are burnt out.

But just last year, Elsevier published a report about the physicians of the future, and it showed that about two-thirds of the doctors that they’ve surveyed feel burnt out because of the technology being implemented. So, I spent my whole career in digital health and healthcare data analytics and informatics, and I know that a lot of the technology that’s being implemented by hospitals, specifically electronic medical records, but also even a lot of the digital health solutions that I used to be really excited about are more implemented in a way that forces doctors to use them in a certain way rather than serves doctors to care for patients.

And so if two-thirds of the doctors are frustrated, that means that the care that we give and provide patients is also going to be coming from that frustrated place. And no one wants that and yet we’re finding it really hard to just look at this problem and start figuring out how we can maybe even backtrack a little bit to put ourselves in a different trajectory. And that’s something that I’m really both tracking and also really interested in being part of the solution because it is my story.

Sandi: Yes, I love how solution-focused you are. And one of the solutions could be for physicians learning the health coach approach so that they can reconnect with those individuals as human beings and foster a strong therapeutic alliance. Because as you talked about, if it’s just looking at your computer screen and you really are not interacting in a meaningful way with people, then that’s not healthcare. That is disease management but not true health care.

Omar: Yeah, I absolutely agree. Absolutely. And we’re seeing a lot of doctors and nurses look for alternative careers as well, like I did. Functional medicine and lifestyle coaching is a great place for them to look because it actually provides them with the tools they need to care for people on their own terms. And even technology requires more doctors to be engaged with that.

And one of my biggest missions in life is to help doctors and nurses become more literate when it comes to data and being able to engage with technology and not be afraid of it, because data is such a huge thing for us these days, especially with what we’re seeing with generative AI and it becoming such a key player when it comes to how we do everything.

And so when we think about data, I feel like healthcare providers and especially frontline workers need to be at the forefront of that data revolution, not in the receiving end of it, because then they can inform where we go as a society when it comes to how we use data with healthcare rather than just being bombarded by ideas and notions coming from a business that knows nothing about healthcare provision or caring for patients.

Sandi: That’s so smart. So, just as in health coaching, we help people to feel empowered to take charge of their health. What you’re saying is that rather than having the systems just pushed on them and not feeling overwhelmed and drowning in all the data and all of the tasks that they must do, often burning the midnight oil, they’re still charting at midnight, doctors tell me, but instead that they are the ones who are really taking charge and having input into how to create that data or how to create the systems that will ease their job of being physicians and help them see patterns in the data.

Omar: Yeah, absolutely. I ran a program as soon as I graduated from FMCA with a small grant, and I recruited 10 doctors. And it kind of created the foundation of what I do with work now, but it was more of an experiment back then where I recruited these doctors to join a three-month wellbeing program that’s data driven. And one of the biggest moments and breakthroughs that I saw them have is when I asked them to do some labs and then put that in a dashboard, like that’s visual for them, and then explain to these doctors where they are in terms of metabolism and where they are in terms of insulin resistance and anabolic state overall exercise, cholesterol and some of the doctors told me that this was quite profound because they are used to doing this for their patients all the time, but they never think about their own data.

And so what you said about helping doctors learn more about health coaching, I think there’s huge potential there in terms of teaching them about technology, teaching them about things like motivational interviewing and skills that we learned over the year, because that allows them to also ultimately do what they want to do, which is serve patients better, and they have to do that by serving themselves.

So, that’s been kind of what I’ve been exploring is that, when doctors start getting interested in data and technology, they will lead with it. But in order to get them interested, we have to make it relevant. And the way to make it relevant is to let them play with their own data and their own health. And back to the topic of burnout, it’s not just about teaching them about these new tools or new ways to provide care for patients or expand their business, but it’s also about their own lives. It’s a very personal matter and about tracking how healthy they are in an organization or in their new role at an organization.

Sandi: This all makes so much sense. And I think that was just so ingenious of you to have them focus not on patient data but on their own data and see that. And then of course the next step is using the coach approach. What do you want your health for? And how can you impact those numbers, that data with diet and lifestyle change? So, kudos to you for developing that and working with those physicians. Any follow-up on what happened or what’s the result of that grant?

Omar: Yeah. So, the end result was that a lot of the doctors… So, we were using the Well-Being Index from Mayo Clinic to just help them track their burnout. So, their subjective state of burnout overall had decreased, and there was an improvement of the quarterly labs between when we started and when we ended on all of the labs.

And there was a lot of really great feedback on the coaching and people really enjoyed having space held for them that way. And also it’s really easy for us as wellbeing program creators to look at the story that we want to look at. So, everything I just told you was what I was hoping to hear. And because the results came in that way, I was very excited to share that with the world.

However, when I had my data analysts look further into the labs and everything, we realized that there was… And also an increase in one biomarker specifically, which was cortisol, and that allowed us to see that there was something off that I didn’t maybe wasn’t ready to see as a program manager. And we did also user experience research. So, we interviewed everyone before and after the program, and we had a detailed report on how people were thinking and what they were feeling.

And what I realized… And I only looked at that because of this cortisol increase and I was very interested to know, “Okay, where’s it coming from?” And I saw that alongside a lot of the positive feedback, there was also this feeling of people letting me down when they didn’t do their habits. And that’s kind of a key characteristic of what makes a physician a physician. We join the forces and we join this job as hard as it is because we want to serve and because we tend to have very high ambition and a lot of us tend to be also people pleasers, even pleasers to our health coach, in my case, or pleasers to the CEO of our hospital, right? And so physicians tend to not push back on certain things, and that was the problem with the first iteration of the program is that it focused so much on lifestyle, but it also stressed doctors out to follow every single thing that we did.

And so that taught me a very valuable lesson, which is that there’s always a deeper thing that is happening beyond what the habits are. So, the habits are just on the surface level, but that allowed me to get interested in methods that can also help people access their trauma and figure out, “Okay,” because at the end of the day, we learn a lot of these techniques in functional medicine and how to help people with their habits, but we all know technically what we need to do, right? And the reason why functional medicine is important is to have someone help you unpack why you’re not doing these things and help you remove the obstacles between you and exercising and eating healthy and not smoking, all these things that everyone knows that we should do, but it’s not that simple because I think it’s entrenched into a lot of our deeper trauma.

So, in that cohort of doctors, the trauma happens to be pleasing others. And a lot of doctors go in medicine in the first place to please their parents. And there’s a syndrome called the syndrome of disavowed yearning. And it describes this idea of wanting to please someone and therefore letting go of my own needs. And I think that’s where burnout happens. And that’s what I realized, and, you know, I keep coming back to, and that’s what made me interested in additional methods to coaching such as internal family systems and somatics that help my clients really get to the deeper causes and deeper issues that are stopping them from achieving the goals that they want.

And so that was my takeaway, you know? It was like a mixed bag of things, but my message to all the functional medicine coaches out there and everyone that’s running a wellbeing program at their institution is to not be afraid to look at the data because if we lie to ourselves, our data will lie to us. And the whole point of data is, first of all, to tell us the truth so that we can improve whether it’s about these or about our programs.

Sandi: Yes, exactly. It’s in the data, and you have created a way for health coaches to track their clients’ data. This is really exciting.

Omar: Yeah. Yeah, I’m very excited about it. I’m really grateful for the FMCA experience because a lot of the tools that we were exposed to are ones that I think can be documented in a digital way that we can go back to and being able to track things like how am I feeling across the nine different health paradigms or the wheel of health, but also there’s a wheel of fulfillment and you can create basically any kind of wheel and add next to that data that’s coming in from your wearables and data that’s coming in from your labs and being able to document and see trends is very… It helps people unlock insights and actions that weren’t available before. And I feel like a lot of the people running functional medicine clinics have a lot of the knowledge around wellbeing and coaching, but they’re missing this data piece. And that’s why it’s very fulfilling for me to see more and more clinics that are able to not just be interested in data but really transform how they’re looking at their own provider wellbeing and also providing patients with these insights on an ongoing basis.

And so right now I run The Human Dash [SP] where we provide dashboards and backend support also but as well as data literacy programs for functional medicine clinics and clinics that have a forward-thinking outlook onto where health is going and are trying to kind of empower people with that. So, we don’t just build the data, which I think is… It’s critical because there are so many dashboards out there, but they’re not tailored to our needs. And I don’t know if you use a Fitbit or Oura Ring or any of these things, but a lot of these dashboards get really old, right? And that’s why there’s this honeymoon period with wearables where it’s like about six months before it starts dropping off. And it’s I think because there’s much more of that.

So, The Human Dash is about helping people fall in love with data and helping humans lead with data rather than this fear that we have about how is data going to take over our jobs and control our lives. Well, the answer is by going into that fear, which is fear of data and actually using it to evolve rather than having it mow us over or having ourselves remain in that fear.

Sandi: That is spot on. And so my understanding is that this would be more customized as opposed to a dashboard, as companies are building, that may not fit for you as with your clients and what you’re wanting to track. So, it’s really, really fantastic. Kudos to you for creating this. You are a visionary. And speaking of being a visionary, what do you see as the future of health coaching? And then what would you like to do? What do you see in the future? What would be ideal? Because in health coaching, we always talk about what’s the ideal, what would that look like, what would be your dream.

Omar: Well, I imagine a world where health coaches start providing services that are data-driven. So, they are able to collect data in an easy way and are able to visualize it in a way that makes sense to their patients. And I also think that the era of a data analyst that’s sitting in a room crunching numbers and being the only person that’s able to tackle data is long gone. What’s going to come is that data… Data already impacts each and every single life on this planet. And so I imagine that almost everyone that can should be able to understand the basics of data and understand how their body is functioning through that, because I think that opens up a path for us to really look at data in a new way in the world. And we will get interested in data if we stop thinking of it as something that is unique to a certain context or a certain problem or a certain business and start really studying our own health data.

So, I wish that not just functional medicine, health coaches and doctors and nurses start using data in their daily lives but also for every human on this planet to be engaged with data, especially data that tells them how their health is doing, because if we don’t do that for ourselves, no one is going to do it for us. And we have to stop relying on the healthcare system for our health needs because it’s not going to help us maintain our health. It’s going to help us remain alive a little longer when we get sick. And so the whole point is for us to kind of build this radar or sonar that I talk about with data so that we can look at subjective measures, objective measures, bring in wearables where we need but really have a bigger picture for what is going on with our health, where are we going and how do we avoid any icebergs on the way. And having that become not just preventative medicine but proactive medicine also and being able to really… Control may be the wrong word also because it’s not about controlling every single thing about our health but I think it’s more like vision about where we’re going and what lies ahead and being able to take the right actions when it comes to that.

Sandi: Absolutely, becoming the architect of your own health and tracking the data and so that you could see changes. This has been a wonderful, wonderful conversation. I look forward to continuing it and following your journey. How can people find you?

Omar: So, you can find me on LinkedIn, Omar Shaker MD, and you can also follow my writing journey at findgumption.com and you can follow The Human Dash. If you’re interested in building custom dashboards at thehumandash.com and you can see the kind of work that we do with data literacy and data visualization and data engineering. And lastly, yeah, I hope people don’t just find me but also look at all the resources around functional medicine that you are certainly putting out in the world but also a lot of people are starting to talk about this new, exciting way of us taking ownership of our health and being the architects of our lives, like you said. And that’s really what I hope for everyone is to start being more thirsty for ways to find health data and find health information.

Sandi: Oh, I love it. Thank you for being on the podcast.

Omar: My pleasure. Thank you, Sandra.