SUNDAY PROFILE: Feinsinger hanging up stethoscope, grabbing skis
When Dr. Greg Feinsinger completes his last day Monday after 41 years as a family physician at Glenwood Medical Associates, he will skate (ski) into the next phase of his life and devote more time to helping people make healthy lifestyle choices.
Feinsinger was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1941 to a musician mother and a law professor father. His family purchased land in Aspen that year — at $4 an acre — and visited every summer until they became permanent residents in the early 1950s, when Feinsinger was a fifth grader. He is grateful that his father, who became a labor mediator, encouraged him to study medicine and said he has had a rewarding career in a field that he remains passionate about.
Feinsinger semi-retired from Glenwood Medical Associates eight years ago at age 65 but continued to practice two days a week. Last fall, he went down to one day a week. As his career wound down, he started promoting a plant-based, low-fat diet and providing free counseling on heart attack prevention.
Today, at age 73, Feinsinger sees positive and negative aspects to dramatic changes in the practice of medicine during his career. His approach to work and life is to maintain a sense of balance and to follow his parents’ teaching that the most important thing in life is to be able to help other people.
As a family physician, Feinsinger saw many patients grow up and, too often, develop the same chronic diseases their parents had battled. This sparked a guiding interest in prevention, and about 13 years ago, he started the Heart Attack, Stroke, and Diabetes Prevention Center at Glenwood Medical. Since 2010, he has developed new ways to help people adopt plant-based eating and other healthy habits, including working with chefs on prepared meal plans.
EVERYONE TRIED TO BLEND IN
Feinsinger was among the 26 graduates of Aspen High School in 1959. Aspen had already seen great changes from the mining boom days when the population reached 20,000, to the bust years that followed.
When Feinsinger’s family moved there in the early ‘50s, it was a small mountain town that was becoming more sophisticated, with offerings such as the Aspen Music Festival. It had a fair share of year-round and part-time residents who had international standing in the arts and humanities. Back then, though, Feinsinger said, “everyone — including the wealthy — tried to blend in with the regular people.”
Feinsinger already played the piano but wanted to learn the clarinet because, in Aspen’s newly consolidated and very small school system, he could join the high school band as a fifth grader. His father introduced him to jazz musician Joe Marsala, who taught him a few lessons. Marsala introduced the young Feinsinger to renowned English clarinetist Reginald Kell, who performed and taught at the Aspen Music Festival. Kell accepted him as a student, and Feinsinger’s love of music continues.
Feinsinger describes 1950s Aspen a wonderful place to grow up. It allowed him to combine world-class opportunity with being “just a regular kid,” and helped him develop a balanced life that continues today.
Feinsinger’s approach to higher education reflects that balance. Upon graduating from high school, he was undecided about studying law, as his father had done, or going into medicine. He majored in political science at Oberlin College in Ohio, a small liberal arts institution that is also known for its music conservatory.
TRAVELING THE WORLD
Feinsinger chose medicine and graduated from the University of Colorado Medical School in 1968. At the time, the medical school accepted students who had liberal arts degrees and only a basic science background. He admitted that taking only five undergraduate science courses made the first few months of medical school more difficult but said, “I’m so glad I did that because I think, especially in primary care, it’s important to be holistic and I think you’re better able to do that if you’re a liberal arts major instead of a science major.”
Between graduating from Oberlin and starting medical school, Feinsinger had a fortunate opportunity to travel the world and experience different cultures. His father had just settled a labor strike for Pan American Airlines and the company gave the new college graduate a job in its cargo department in Tokyo. The job with Pan Am also allowed him to travel to other international destinations: Hong Kong, Istanbul, Beirut, Calcutta and Innsbruck, Austria. He said “it was an incredible opportunity for a 22-year-old kid,” and described it as a valuable part of his education.
During medical school, Feinsinger met his wife, Kathy, a nursing student. They married during their sophomore year and will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary Feb. 5.
After graduation, Feinsinger did his internship at San Joaquin County Hospital in Stockton, California, and then returned to Colorado to join the Indian Health Service. Kathy, a third-generation Japanese-American, had been raised on a farm on the reservation at Fort Hall, Idaho, so working in the Indian Health Service was a good fit. Feinsinger described it as a good two years that gave him experience working as a physician for a salary.
“I thought it was a really good way to practice medicine,” he said.
A SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY
He said that one of the negative changes he has seen in the practice of medicine is that it has become too centered on making money. He thinks we should adopt a European-style system in which medical education is tax-supported but doctors work for a salary.
Feinsinger said he could have been happy continuing as a doctor with the Indian Health Service, but he and Kathy, who later became a Planned Parenthood nurse, already had two children and she was ready to live somewhere else.
Feinsinger stayed true to his goal of helping people by then completing a residency in Santa Rosa, California, at Sonoma County Hospital, which is affiliated with the University of California at San Francisco. He believes that doing both his internship and residency at county hospitals was essential to his education. In that type of setting, he said, “if you don’t take care of the patients, nobody will. You really learn a sense of responsibility.”
The Feinsingers were avid downhill skiers in Idaho and wanted to live in a place where the sport was close at hand. They moved to Glenwood Springs, where Feinsinger joined Glenwood Medical Associates.
One of the positive developments Feinsinger has observed during his 41 years with GMA is a great increase in medical knowledge. He said that largely because of the Framingham Heart Study, we know much more about the causes and progression of chronic diseases than when he began practicing.
He has seen Glenwood Medical Associates and Valley View Hospital grow dramatically. That growth has brought specialists who can tackle complex medical problems and a wider range of treatments that have helped improve area residents’ health overall. But Feinsinger said it has come at an unhealthy cost. Like many systems nationwide, Valley View Hospital “is buying up doctors’ practices.” He said that creates a conflict of interests for physicians, who experience pressure to see more patients and bring in more money by performing and ordering tests and procedures rather than taking time to counsel people about lifestyle change.
SOME DOCS LISTEN LESS
Feinsinger described the conversion to electronic medical records as another change that has a downside. Glenwood Medical was an early adopter of electronic records in the 1990s, and Feinsinger said some of the older doctors had to be “dragged along kicking and screaming.” He said he understands the necessity of that change but has seen it negatively affect the connection physicians have with their patients. Many doctors even use templates to create records now, a practice Feinsinger said makes doctors less likely to listen to patients and “figure out the patient’s story, the bottom line.”
But Feinsinger said the most important change in the practice of medicine during his career is the discovery of how much lifestyle choices affect people’s physical and mental health. But change is hard and takes a long time. He described how speakers at almost every medical meeting he attends talk about the importance of a healthy diet and exercise but conclude with the idea that lifestyle changes are too difficult and patients will not make them anyway.
Feinsinger, though, believes people can change, and is out to help them do it. He has partnered with Masterminds 4 Wellness to continue his vegan food program, now known as Hippocrates Table. The partnership allows him to focus on the program’s medical aspects instead of its administrative duties.
Feinsinger invites his friends, patients and colleagues to celebrate with him (with healthy snacks) at his retirement party at Glenwood Medical Associates from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Feb. 10.
Feinsinger’s retirement from Glenwood Medical will also give him more time to practice his favorite sport, Nordic skiing, which he started about 15 years ago. He passionately practices both the classic and skate styles and has become a World Loppett Master by completing challenging international Nordic skiing races. He said it is one of the few sports in which a person can continue to improve with age by working on technique.
For Feinsinger, this retirement is a change, not an end. It means looking back, looking ahead and living a life of balance today.
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