In this show, we feature Dr. Ronald Brown, MD and his CEO Seth Conger of Carolina Healthspan Institute in Charlotte.
Dr. Brown and team have created a unique Bredesen-style brain health protocol combining functional medicine and neurofeedback; which has flooded his practice with high-performing CEOs, executives, athletes and business owners.
Tune in today and discover the keys to building a sustainable and wildly successful cognitive health practice, including:
- How they cornered their local market and reached high-level patients by offering neurofeedback, bioidentical hormones and functional medicine in one place
- What’s made them so successful in reversing cognitive decline in patients in an efficient and predictable fashion
- How their signature programs have helped those with cognitive decline, PTSD, head injuries and neurodevelopmental impairments and also high-performers looking to improve executive function
- The keys to developing a systematic hierarchy of needs with each cognitive health patient that produces predictable, measurable results
- The incredible value of offering complex brain function testing to high performers
High-performers like employers, executives, CEOs and athletes are hungry for cognitive health programs like this…get an insider-look at how Dr. Browns’ model could help take your practice to new heights.
Resources Mentioned in this podcast:
The kNew Vision Tour
The Bredesen Protocol
Announcer: Welcome to The Functional Forum Podcast, the place health professionals come to hear from innovators and agitators leading the charge. We cover the latest clinical breakthroughs in health technology, as well as practical tools to help transform your practice and the health of your community. Now here’s your host, James Maskell.
James Maskell: Hello and welcome to the podcast. This week we feature Dr. Ronald Brown and Seth Conga of the Carolina Health Span Institute in Charlotte. This clinic is bringing together the best of functional medicine brain protocols and neurofeedback to do some incredible work in the traumatic brain injury, mild cognitive impairment space, and also in executive function.
One of the reasons why we’re putting this on and continuing the theme of employer health is that this clinic is one of the clinics that is treating a number of the top CEOs in Charlotte, and this is exactly what we’ve been talking about with how to get functional medicine to the masses through the employer market, so there’s tons of great stuff in this podcast. You can hear a little bit about how the practice came to be, and how they sort of ended up creating these programs, but also to see what kind of results they’ve had with football players, and also some of the keys to building a sustainable program inside the practice.
So it’s a really interesting half an hour. Dr. Brown will be one of the speakers on the New Health Tour later this year. Enjoy.
So a warm welcome to the podcast, Dr. Brown and Seth Conga. Welcome guys.
Dr. Brown: Thanks.
Seth Conga: Hey, James.
James Maskell: So Dr. Brown, let’s maybe start with you. I know that every doctor who finds themselves in this functional medicine realm has an interesting story about your journey to practice like this. Maybe we can just start at the beginning with your training, and the kind of, your journey to the practice that you have right now.
Dr. Brown: Sure. So I grew up in North Caroline, went to Davidson College undergraduate, then went to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Was pretty influenced by a couple of former, older fraternity brothers of mine, and they sort of coached me into going into OBGYN. I had a military commitment because of ROTC in college, and so I trained in the military in Seattle, Washington. Did my internship and residency out there in OBGYN. Came back and did my two year payback at the hospital at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in Columbia. And then moved to Charlotte where I practiced OBGYN from 1981 until 2004, during which time I delivered about 5,000 babies.
I was always into innovative, microinvasive surgery, minimally invasive surgery. I sort of pioneered a couple of minimally invasive surgical procedures. Toward the end of that, sort of the early 2000s, I had already been using what we now call bioidentical hormones. And as a lot of doctors have gotten, I was a little frustrated with the system, insurance companies, and so forth. And also had always been interested in wellness, in basically telling my patients, look this is, I feel is part of my job is to tell you that you need to eat well, and you need to exercise, and these are certain supplements that I think that you should take. So I got to the point where I couldn’t do everything that I wanted to do in my gynecologic practice, so I went out on my own. Sort of coincided with when my children were out of college, so it was a little easier for me to make that break a little more secure because I didn’t need to put them through college.
And so when I left my very comfortable Tulane practice, I decided that I would not take insurance, and I would sort of wing it in my executive wellness program and so forth. The bioidentical hormone replacement therapy was something that I was very comfortable with. I was pretty much the only person around who was using those at the time. And that sort of set me apart, and enabled me to do pretty well from the get go, because people, women especially, were looking for that. So things did well. Initially it was myself, my wife, she said, “Well I’ll help you for a few months until you get started.” And my nurse whose now been with me for 35 years. And the wellness aspect of that, or at least the executive wellness aspect of that sort of took a back seat because most everybody who came to me was coming to me for hormones, because I was, as I say, the only game in town.
I had a couple people who coaxed me into writing a book about it, so I spent the better part of evenings and weekends writing a book over the 2004, 2005. Had some issue with publishing and editing, and so forth, so wasn’t published until 2006. But that again sort of labeled me as someone who knew what he was talking about at least. I think that once you go down that road of getting away from conventional medicine, then one thing sort of leads to another and you start doubting more and more about the system, and who’s in control. So obviously, my feelings about that became stronger and stronger, so I got more and more into the “Functional medicine.” It wasn’t called functional medicine at the time. People would say, “What do you do?” And I’d say, “Well I do wellness medicine.” “Well is that alternative medicine?” I would say, “Yeah, I guess.” But alternative sounded like you weren’t on the same planet, and the functional medicine label came out, I sort of said, “That’s really kind of what I’m dong.” So I’ve adopted that moniker as well.
So as far as the brain stuff, said in my book again, which was published in 2006, that it’s interesting that people just don’t ever evaluate a brand. There really isn’t an easy functional brain function testing mechanism that anybody uses, and at some point somebody’s going to figure out how to test the brain fairly easily, and actually how to treat it. At that point I had actually interviewed some people about, who were into that, who are well known out there now. And their way of treating it was to use their proprietary supplements, as opposed to something that I felt comfortable with. Because all these supplements were, were something that I could buy in a health food store, and they just put their label on it. And it was more, at least from my standpoint, it seemed like more of a money making thing than, is there some science behind this to support that this actually does something?
So literally I was at a meeting about four years ago, four and a half years ago, and started talking with some guys about what they’re doing, and they started telling me about neurofeedback. And I immediately thought, well this sounds real, it sounds legitimate. And the more I looked into it, the more I felt like, this is a very real treatment modality that works, the people who are using it are honest people, their reporting of their results is honest, and it’s amazing to me that at the time, nobody really knew about it. It was amazing that I didn’t know about it, because I had been looking for something like this. Of course the answer to that is that it’s, to get into neurofeedback is a leap of faith, it’s a cost to it, there’s a dedication to it, and most people are not willing to do that, especially in the medical field because they don’t need to make it. They can see four times more patients and get paid four times more just by prescribing medications.
So I did decide to make the leap. I had, Seth had just basically started working for me, he took a big interest in it. So we jumped into that, and at this point, four years, four and a half years down the road, while it has cost me money, time, effort, it has been a great investment because I think it’s one of the more rewarding things that I’ve ever used. I still believe and say that it’s one of the greatest tools I’ve ever seen in my medical career, to treat a disease process, or at least a perceived disease process in some cases, and actually have the results that we get, and actually cure people of something that they were, or are told that they need to take a medication for the rest of their lives.
James Maskell: Yeah absolutely. So it’s a great story, and I really appreciate going through that whole journey from that process, and certainly brain diseases with Dr. Amen, and Dr. Perlmutter, and now Dr. Bredesen sort of jumping into the functional medicine realm has started to open up. At this moment, with the program that you have today, I know that you’ve been able to get some incredible results, you’ve been able to work with some pretty influential organizations. What do you feel is at the heart of the results that you’ve been able to get within brain health by using this combination of functional medicine and neurofeedback?
Dr. Brown: Well you’re right, it is about the program. It’s not just one aspect of it, it’s not just one modality of treatment. It’s a multi modal approach that is the thing that works. I’ve always been about, look if you want to be ultimately healthy, then these are the things that you need to do. And it’s about eating well and exercising, all of those things. Nothing’s different about really the treatment, prevention of any underlying disease process, it’s all of those things. It just so happens that now with Dr. Bredesen’s recode protocol, it’s a protocol that we’ve actually been using now for four years to treat virtually every neuro psychiatric, neuro cognitive disorder. There’s tweaks in it specific to the actual disease process, but basically it’s all a similar type program, and it works for everything.
James Maskell: Absolutely. So you know I’ve … and Seth, maybe you want to jump and here. I know you’ve been sort of instrumental in the coordination of the programs, and that side of things. Do you want to share some of the ground that you guys have taken in the clinic in the last four years?
Seth Conga: Yeah, absolutely. So four years ago when we decided to bring on neurofeedback, it was almost like a separate division of our company. So people would come to the neuro division, or they would come upstairs and for wellness, and hormones, and lifestyle education. It wasn’t until we really developed programs around it that we realized that these two pieces really go together. And when we started putting them together, that’s when the results just really started to skyrocket. That was just in the last couple of years. I think that there’s very few functional medicine practices that have neurofeedback, there’s even fewer neurofeedback practices that have functional medicine, or even a version of functional medicine out there. And the ability to have those tools, and neurofeedback is a tool. It’s like, platelet rich plasma is a tool, its like having different vendors for these supplements or technologies, or anything else is a tool, but it seems to tap into a different are that we weren’t tapping into before, and allow individuals to progress further faster.
I think that’s really the key, if patents are coming in and they see that they have a six month timeline to get better, it doesn’t matter in their head that it took them two or three decades to get to the point where they are, they want to get better as fast as they can. If we can speed up that process for them by taking some of those barriers out and really focusing on their brain function, that’s where we’ve been so successful in getting people to the results that they’re looking for in an efficient fashion, and a predictable fashion, while giving them the experience that they’re looking for. And that’s kind of how we’ve gotten to the point where, taking on cognitive decline was just something that was already in our wheel house. We had been doing it, but like Dr. Brown said, we hadn’t been advertising that we were reversing cognitive decline until Dr. Bredesen had his groundbreaking book came out and announced it to the world. So that was very easy for us to say, okay now we already have this program in place, we have the data to support it internally.
We’ve worked with everything from head injuries to neuro psychiatric conditions, military individuals with PTSD, quite a few of them have seen a major reversal of symptoms. And so how do we build a sustainable program around that that is repeatable, and that’s where we sit right now.
James Maskell: Did you, after you went to Dr. Bredesen’s training at [inaudible 00:14:55] at the end of last year, through the IFM, did you see a lot of congruence with what you’ve been doing? It seems like there’s multiple elements that are the same.
Dr. Brown: Yeah, there’s not … really, what I would tell you is, there’s certainly, his testing that he does and the supplements that he uses were generally more expensive than what I have been using. Obviously my background with hormone replacement therapy, that was something that I feel like we are way ahead of where he was in that regard. And the use of neurofeedback, obviously he doesn’t use that, or hasn’t used that to this point. I think he will because, I think he’ll find that things happen quicker, better, faster using neurofeedback. It’s just another piece of, another modality that makes things work. In his training I definitely, mainly I was curious to see if they were doing something that we weren’t doing, and it was really a little more testing and a few more supplements, and that’s about it.
Seth Conga: James, I think one of the big pieces is that when you’re a practice our size, and we have nine practitioners across different disciplines all under one roof. And you have all the testing already, you have all of the rooms, and the equipment, and the technology. What you learn over the years is to develop a hierarchy of needs with the patient. So instead of throwing the kitchen sink at them in the beginning, you start with what is needed most, and then go from there. You don’t overwhelm them, especially when they’re in cognitive decline. They’ve had so many years of habits that it’s not as simple as just say, change your life and everything will get better.
So we take an approach to help them along the way, and that may be starting with hormone replacement therapy first, it may be starting with neuro feedback first, it may be starting with bio feedback if they have an autonomic function. But doing the appropriate testing, and then having the tools to approach it hierarchically and systematically has been really what has led us to success in this.
James Maskell: It reminds me of the Naturopathic principle, which is the therapeutic order, where it’s like the least invasive, the least costly intervention first, then move up. I think one of the things that’s been a criticism of functional medicine is that you do all the testing and all the stuff right up front. Therefore, it ends being sort of like a different proposition, but that kind of reminds me of what you’re saying there. Would you say that’s sort of like the approach you guys have taken?
Dr. Brown: Yeah, absolutely. You don’t, for a woman who has a problem with her menstrual period, you don’t jump into doing a hysterectomy first, you do your walk in type of lesson base of things first. So no question we start with a core lab work, core set of supplements and go from there based on how they do. Testing, family history, personal history, and so forth.
James Maskell: Beautiful, yeah and I love that. One of the things I really wanted to, because I really appreciate you sharing this, and I know that there are clinics around the country that are starting to implement the Bredesen protocol. I know that we have some clinics that just do neuro feedback, maybe have a nutritionist on staff or probably have them put the two pieces together like you have. And it’s been amazing just to see the results that you guys have had with range of brain issues, that you’ve got the sort of traumatic brain injury on one end, the NFL kind of stuff, and then on the other side you’ve got the mild cognitive impairment, and the cognitive decline, and both seeming to come back really easily with those combination of modalities.
Back in December, while I was filming the January Functional Forum on pediatrics, Seth and I had a chance to go to dinner with a number of other, Sheila Kilbane, who was in the show, and Food Babe, and a couple of other people there. Seth, one of the things as I start to share that, we had just locked down the relationship with Benecomp, which we just released a couple weeks ago as the real insurance plan that includes functional medicine for employers. We realized that the most important person that we needed to capture the attention of if we really wanted to change medicine, have functional medicine become the standard of care, is decision makers in large companies that are already doing functional medicine and seeing the benefit of it. So Seth, maybe we could just jump into that a little bit, because from what you, just to share a little bit of the story of how that came into your wheelhouse.
Seth Conga: Yeah so we’ve, Dr. Brown’s been seeing a lot of executives and CEO’s for a long time. I think that they’re more concerned about their overall performance and brain function. So we’ve had a lot of CEO’s, a lot of executives here in our practice for the last decade and half. But specifically in the last few years, people have been coming in for peak performance. And they’re doing the programs for us, and we’re looking at their lifestyle and everything, but we’re really trying to shift their overall brain performance to a higher level. Most people, even if they’re coming in for peak performance, they always have some sort of problem, whether it’s an anxiety, or there’s a tension issue, or just overall stress. And that kind of really falls into our wheelhouse, so we have a lot of exec’s and CEO’s in the area who trust us because of the abilities that we have, and the breadth that we have to tackle whether it’s a health concern, or if they just think they need to perform better at their jobs, we can fill that role as well.
So we’ve been successful in that. And I think again, it goes back to the hierarchy of needs with those individuals, because there’s some really simple things we can do to tweak somebody’s, their performance so they can last longer at work, focus longer, and be overall better, and also be able to shut their brain off at night, or even just when they get back with their family. So it’s been great for us, and it’s just a very attractive population to work with, because they’re so driven that they’re going to take any suggestions that we have, or any curriculums that we have, and they’re going to follow them very closely because they understand the value of the changes that they’re making to their own health.
James Maskell: Absolutely. And if you can reverse mild cognitive impairment, and if you can recover someone from a traumatic brain injury, what does it do to the brain function of just the average executive who’s probably traveling and stressed, and maybe eating here and there, not the exact right diet for the travel and other things I’m sure you’ve seen. And then what is the value of that person’s higher cognitive function to the organization that they serve?
Seth Conga: That’s right. And we do some simple, and then some very complex brain function testing. We do some simple brain function testing on every single person who walks in the door, and we have pre’s and posts on all of the, whether they’re just getting hormone replacement therapy, or whether they’re going through a gut repair protocol, or neuro feedback, or everything combined. Then we have the complex if we’re really going to dive into neurofeedback using actual functional imaging here in the practice.
But to turn around and show somebody that who feels better, and feels like their brain is ticking faster, but to show them that they just got a 20% boost in say, executive function or decision making ability, that can convert to some real dollars if it turns out that that’s an executive or a CEO of a company, let alone things like processing speed. We’ve seen NFL football players who have had their processing speed jump by up to 60%. And if you just think about the overall ability for them to process things in a moments period of time, that is unbelievably valuable. And sometimes they’re not coming to us thinking there’s a problem, that there’s an issue, so it’s not really a medical treatment in nature, it’s more just their human potential and driving that forward. And we do it in the same way that we would take somebody with a brain injury or a mild cognitive impairment, and just really re train their brain, re wire it to function better by looking at their whole body and brain as a system.
James Maskell: Sounds like the Carolina Panthers need to make an investment in your group if they want to win the NFL.
Dr. Brown: That’s always a tough one, we think that is the difference.
James Maskell: So Dr. Brown, obviously this is now, with Seth at the helm you’ve got to build up the practice or otherwise. Where do you hope to see this go now? Obviously you have, one of the questions that I asked Seth when I first met him is, how do you see yourself comparing to the Bredesen and the Amen, and all these type of things? Certainly with this combination of resources, it does seem like you guys are doing something that’s above and beyond what I’ve seen in the industry. Where do you see it going from here?
Dr. Brown: I do have aspirations for a bigger contribution to this, our making brains better. I know that certainly Daniel Amen has been on that quest for a while, and now Dr. Bredesen. I do think that we have a program that is at least as good as anybody’s out there. The difference with us is neurofeedback, we do use hormones, I think more aggressively, more efficiently than most people will know how to do that. Most doctors, that’ll be something brand new to them if they say, okay I want to do this Bredesen protocol, they’ll either off source hormone replacement therapy and/or neurofeedback, or they’ll do it in their office, and they just won’t be as, they can’t be as efficient at it as we are at this point. That’s not saying they can’t be at some point, but I do think that we have an edge there, and for sure we feel like we have a model that can be taken to other places. I think that the difficulty with the Bredesen protocol is that it is complex.
It’s not something … I sat in his training with 70 other practitioners, and I can tell you that there probably weren’t but five people in there, maybe not five, who had the capability of going back to their home and actually making this happen within any short length of time, just because it takes a team of practitioners to do this. And that is not something that you can put together overnight, I’ve been working on it for 14 years to put it together. And quite frankly, I would have had greater difficulty, I didn’t really put it together, we were certainly working on it, but until I had somebody with Seth’s capability of bringing it all together, I didn’t have the capability of doing what we’re doing. So I think that we are working on a model that we can actually put in place pretty much in any venue in the United States, and including the VA hospitals and military hospitals. So that’s sort of my long term goal, is to make that happen.
James Maskell: Beautiful, I love that. Seth, on your end, I know one of the things that we’ve seen over time is that the most successful practices that not only build a successful practice, but then end up having an impact, typically have the doctor and the sort of practice manager person not be the same person. A lot of times it is the same person, it’s the sort of doctor entrepreneur. What sort of benefit do you see that there’s been for having those roles separated, and how could you see Dr. Brown’s vision come into fruition in the next little while?
Seth Conga: Well I think first of all, the personal benefit to me is that I knew nothing about this world before starting. My background is I worked for a fortune 500 marketing company for about seven years, then had a couple start ups, then started with Dr. Brown. And the first thing that we did was get me on a program, get me on a health program that has now really turned into what we’re doing today. And of course we pieced it together over years, but I had a horrible history of concussions and head injuries that with neurofeedback, the right supplements, the right hormones, the right nutritional changes and exercise changes, literally turned my brain back on. So without going through this myself, I wouldn’t have been able to ever pull it together. So I have a very personal history with this, and a personal motivation and drive to bring it out to others. We’ve developed unbelievable friendships with some of the patients, hall of fame football players that have come to us and seen their lives turned around. Just to see that, and everybody in functional medicine has these stories of seeing people who had a terminal diagnosis be completely turned around and given a new lease on life.
I feel like we’re at a stage right now where we have a new lease on business, and the ability to take what we’ve done so well and learn from all the mistakes that we have made, and fast forward other individuals and other practices, so that they don’t have to go through what we have gone through. They don’t have to spend the money on the research and development, they don’t have to figure out what parts of the team they need, which technologies to put together. Neurofeedback alone is complicated, and we’ve gone through 10 different pieces of neurofeedback equipment over the past four and a half years to figure out the right protocols, and the right equipment to use that can be repeatable and teachable to other practices. So I think the division between the medical treatment protocols, and then the putting together of the programs and the business structure, that is just synced up in a beautiful synergy that is going to propel it forward in just a very smooth way.
And what we’ve kept one thing in our minds between the two of us, and between everybody else in our practice, and that is, how do we create a predictable experience, and get a predictable result out of that? And that involves a system. Yes, we can bring new tools in there, and fancy supplements, and all these gadgets, but at the end of the day, the individual wants to know they’re going to get a predictable result, and they want to get a predictable experience, and that’s how you scale. And that’s what we’ve built, and I think we’ve done a very good job of building that together, playing off of each other’s strengths, and also the strengths of an incredible network of other functional medicine providers and neuro feedback providers that we’ve learned from over the years, to help create the model that we have today. So we’re very excited to be soon hopefully bringing that to others.
James Maskell: Wow, that’s yeah, super exciting. And thanks for sharing that, Seth. And just following up from last weeks podcast where Dr. Tara Scott put on a movie night and ended up having not only the CEO of the local hospital, but also a decision maker at FedEx in the room. And they got really excited by the movie night, and now conversations are moving forward at that end. I’m excited to share that Dr. Brown, and obviously some of the other people in Charlotte, like Dr. Kilbane and Food Babe, will be part of the kNew vision tour, which is coming through on October the ninth. So if you’re in Charlotte, North Carolina the, get involved. But Dr. Brown, hopefully that night we can get you on stage to talk about the amazing work that you’ve been doing, and hopefully effect some of these CEO’s that you’ve been working with, with the idea that root cause resolution medicine delivered at scale to their employees could save a significant amount of money.
And given where we are at this stage in the world, to turn around the health of this country, because we’re really at a point where it’s definitely going to fall on employers more than it is on government, certainly in this administration. And we’re starting to see the apples of the world, or the amazon’s of the world turn their attention to it. But I would love to see the functional medicine ecosystem play a significant role in changing the atmosphere of medicine in the country, and I’m sure you would as well. And that’s what really excited to be doing at new with Incenticare with Benecomp. So thank you for all your great work in pioneering this, and for making these kind of connections. And let’s see what we, as a community, can do to push forward this, and get functional medicine kind of light to every employee through the health coaching, and the KPO, and the network of doctors, it’s an exciting time with the momentum that we’re feeling, isn’t it?
Dr. Brown: Absolutely.
Seth Conga: It certainly has.
James Maskell: Beautiful, well look, thank you so much for sharing. If you want to find out more about the clinic, it’s carolinahealthspan.com. If you have questions about what they’re doing, I’m sure Seth would be happy to connect with you and share a little bit about what they’re doing in the practice. I just like to reiterate, if you’re interested in running a successful functional medicine practice, or if you’re interested in growing what is already a successful functional medicine practice into a bigger opportunity, having a doctor/entrepreneur combination, working together, has really proved to be something that can help something really grow and systematize. So it’s a great example of what you guys have done there in North Carolina, and wish you all the best. Anything we can do to support, we’d love to hear how the results come, and the outcomes as things move along. I kind of feel like I need to get down there and do the program for myself, so watch for this face.
But in the mean time, thanks so much for being part of the Functional Forum podcast. We have been with Dr. Ronald Brown and Seth Conga from Carolina Health Span Institutes. My name’s James Maskell, this is the Functional Forum podcast. And we’ll see you next time.
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