Interview with Dr. Alissa Zingman, Founder and CEO of P.R.I.S.M.
Dr. Alissa Zingman, MD, MPH's practice, P.R.I.S.M. Spine and Joint treats patients with connective tissue disorders and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Dr. Zingman was featured in Physician Outlook Magazine in 2020. We caught up with her two years later as she continues to make strides to reshape the face of medicine as we know it.
“I knew it (COVID-19) was coming, and I was able to tap into my Public Health training to pivot and prepare for caring for my patients during a pandemic..." Zingman recalled as she enumerated the precautions and protocols that she put in place at her private practice as soon as the first cases of COVID-19 were reported on the west coast. Dr. Zingman, who obtained her Medical Doctorate degree from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and her MPH from The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health credits her MPH degree with the foresight to create a plan that would allow her to continue to "see" her patients via telemedicine and, when appropriate, in person with appropriate PPE. Like all things Alissa seems to do, her plan and approach to patient care during the pandemic was comprehensive, patient-centered and well-thought-out.
We first introduced Physician Outlook readers to Dr. Alissa Zingman in October of 2020 in a widely read and shared article titled "Invisible Illness: Chronically (ch)Ill." Since then Dr. Zingman has become somewhat of a celebrity amongst patients with mysterious "zebra" illnesses and the physicians and medical teams who treat them. She was featured by the Washington Post in December of 2021 in an article titled "A doctor struggled with a rare, incurable syndrome. Now she helps others overcome it," where long-time Post staff writer and enterprise reporter William Wan describes how Dr. Zingman was FOR YEARS repeatedly misdiagnosed and summarily dismissed as being a hypochondriac...until she herself confirmed her the underlying condition that explained her mysterious ailments. In March of 2022, she hit the "big league" when her practice, P.R.I.S.M. Spine and Joint was prominently featured in People Magazine in an article authored by Wendy Grossman Kantor in an article titled "Doctor Who Devised a Treatment for her Rare, Painful Disease Started a Clinic to Help Others." Physician Outlook Magazine featured her clinic in March of 2022 in a piece titled "Cohesive Connectivity."
Her vision for the practice she created arose from recognizing that there was an obvious need for well-coordinated care for patients with hypermobility issues and the many associated disorders. P.R.I.S.M. Spine and Joint was created, at least in part, as a reaction to Dr. Zingman's own troubled health journey. P.R.I.S.M. is an acronym for Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Sports Medicine. She urges physicians to heed their inner "callings" in order to find and keep a passion for the practice of Medicine.
“My advice to other physicians is, to do what you feel called to do. Don’t allow external forces make you pick a mold to fit yourself into. If you have something that you are passionate about, find a way that you can fill a need doing what you love. If you are competing for patients, that means that you haven't found your niche. There are so many unmet needs for patients. None of us should be competing for patients. Find a void that you will derive satisfaction from filling and do that.”
Physicians don’t have to find something uncommon to specialize in. Finding an unaddressed part of a common illness and addressing that in a novel way is just as important. “Look at the community that you live in. What are the unmet needs of that community? What of those needs’ lights your fire? My waitlist for new patients at one point was over 5 years. My practice grew organically through word of mouth. It’s all based on need.”
Currently, physicians and patients are not in control of healthcare. Care exists in silos, where patients must travel to see specialists in Rheumatology, Neurology, Internal Medicine, etc. There are no "Multiple Sclerosis Practices" with a Psychiatrist, Neurologist, Ophthalmologist and a Primary Care Physician coordinating the care for the patient with MS. But, why not? Wouldn’t that make so much more sense?
P.R.I.S.M. Spine and Joints is an EDS and Connective Tissue Disorder Practice that has structured itself to provide, under one roof, the multiple specialists and ancillary paraprofessionals needed to properly treat patients with connective tissue disorders. It allows them to specialize in what patients need. P.R.I.S.M. is unique because it looked at this disease and the needs of its patients and created the practice based on that. The primary purpose of Alissa’s practice is to look at the needs and fill the gap between what is needed and what is available.
There are few practices that truly coordinate care, create plans for and with patients, and create a framework for how those patients can gain access to that care. That is what Alissa’s practice is doing. The change is based on the need. A business model catering to the illness and obviously thriving while helping patients.
“I never intended my practice to be over 90% EDS patients.” Dr. Zingman clarifies. “I enjoy taking care of dancers and athletes. I would do that again. I don’t plan to spend my entire career focusing exclusively on EDS though it will always be an area of focus for me. That is just how my schedule filled. The need was there. I also have patients with rheumatologic conditions, some who have had multiple surgeries and others who have survived terrible motor vehicle accidents."
It was with that admonition that Alissa revealed the most telling statement of her interview: “I want to personally be completely irrelevant in 10 years."
What she has created is really a training facility. She has trained a large number of individuals and has been able to bring the waitlist time down for patients seeking care from P.R.I.S.M. from six years to one year by adding three more doctors. The team at P.R.I.S.M. now includes five physicians, specializing in Sports Medicine/Regenerative Medicine, Pain Management, Pediatrics and Osteopathic Manual Neuromuscular Medicine.
"My goal is to create a practice and training materials so that nobody needs ME. The number of people flying from California, England, Europe, to seek care from P.R.I.S.M. is outrageous. First of all, it excludes a tremendous number of people from getting care. Second of all, even if you have resources, that shouldn't be necessary. My hope is that in 10 years I will have created enough educational materials, and raised enough awareness that I personally will be obsolete. There will be more physicians trained in the care of patients with EDS and related hypermobility syndromes. Those with "invisible illnesses" will finally be able to get the kind of care that they need and deserve."
Dr. Zingman is working on ways to make the type of care provided at P.R.I.S.M. more broadly available. “I like being a teacher, and a doctor. The idea of having more locations and staff doesn't appeal to me. There was a time when I thought that was the solution, but I don't think that is what I am meant to do." Her ultimate goal is to create a training institute that offers continuing medical education for a variety of different medical professionals, and for P.R.I.S.M. to become a consultant for other practices.
All of her hard work, all of her addressing needs, has finally found a culmination: The Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Research Foundation. EDSRF is a 501c3 foundation that is funded by friends and patients sympathetic to the lack of research on the disease. The foundation has several studies underway. One has already been submitted for publication. “I think that the reality is, that you don’t even know all the problems in EDS, or the most common presenting symptoms. We don’t know how much better they can get. From what I have been told by others who work with EDS patients, patients get a lot better at P.R.I.S.M than they do at any other facility.”
Dr. Zingman wants to be able to give definitive numbers to her patients and colleagues, and the foundation helps her research the progress made at P.R.I.S.M., with a goal of demonstrating that a comprehensive patient and condition-centered approach is how progress is made. Through the EDSRF she hopes to be able to provide data to prove to insurance companies and colleagues that not her business model, practice and approach are working in a quantifiable manner.
“I am very grateful for my MPH from Hopkins,” Zingman often mentions the invaluable help that her Public Health background has allowed. “Public Health gave me tools I wouldn’t have known I needed. I really think that if more physicians were given the opportunity for a true Public Health education, we wouldn't have a lot of the problems we are having in our communities, and physicians would have more control over what is going on in medicine. That would be a lot better for all communities."
“I didn’t want any of this. My original plan was to work 3 days per week and have a low-key life...my health literally depends on being able to find that balance. We need to collectively develop systems of care that improve the lives of our patients."
Dr. Zingman is a driven and motivated patient advocate and healer who won’t stop until all of her goals are attained. She is one of the few people in this world actively trying to make herself expendable, and she seems happy to do so.
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