Women In Wellness: Why We Need A Movement For Universal Health Education” With Joy Stephenson-Laws of Proactive Health Labs

Dr. William Seeds
Aug 30 · 16 min read
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Given how important health education is to keep our society as healthy as possible, I would start a movement for universal health education instead of universal health care. Even if the latter were to come in to being (which is problematic to say the least), universal health care without universal “cradle to grave” health education would never achieve the goal of significantly reducing costs or improving health care in this country.

a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joy Stephenson-Laws.

Joy is the founder and executive director of Proactive Health Labs, a national nonprofit health education organization dedicated to ensuring people have the information and tools they need to get and stay healthy. She also is founder and managing partner of Stephenson, Acquisto & Colman, the health care industry’s premier litigation law firm. Ms. Stephenson-Laws is the author of Minerals: The Forgotten Nutrient, Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy. She also is the Honorary Consul of Jamaica in Los Angeles.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

was born and raised in Jamaica. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always had an interest in health and what I could do to stay healthy. I probably got this from my brother, a cardiologist. My mother, who was extremely proud of my brother, encouraged me to become a doctor as well. I had originally planned on following my brother’s path, but toward the end of my college studies, I realized that I was more interested in practicing law than medicine. So, I continued on to law school and found a way to combine my interest in the law with my passion for health care. I can tell you that both my mom and my brother were quite happy with my choice!

Over the more than three decades that I have been a health care attorney, I must have reviewed more than 50,000 medical records. One thing that struck me was that had most patients known how to stay well, or had their diseases been diagnosed and treated before symptoms occurred, they could have enjoyed much better treatment outcomes. This belief was reinforced by my personal experience of losing loved ones, colleagues and friends to diseases which, had they been diagnosed early enough and treated more effectively, could either have been controlled or cured.

I clearly saw that the better educated people are about how to proactively protect their health, the more benefits of a healthy life they will enjoy. These include a greater sense of well-being, enhanced performance of daily activities, more energy, disease prevention, and a speedier recovery and better outcome from any medical treatment they may need. And being more educated also allows people to better partner with their health care providers in making choices about lifestyle and health care management. I always say that an educated patient is a healthier patient.

I also saw that taking care of our health meant more than simply going to the doctor for an annual physical, taking vitamins or prescribed medications, eating a healthy diet and exercising more. It also meant knowing how to manage one’s health, checking to make sure that all the steps someone takes are actually working and checking that their body is getting all the critical nutrients it needs.

Recognizing that not enough was being done to give people the information and the tools they need to proactively protect their health, I founded the nonprofit Proactive Health Labs (pH Labs for short) in 2012 to address this need. I also decided that our whole approach would be based on working to prevent disease before a person has any symptoms or, in the case of chronic diseases, more effectively manage them. We should not wait to get sick before taking steps to protect our health.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

I don’t have a single “most interesting story” per se, but rather an interesting and important realization that still influences me to this day. When I started my career as a health care attorney and began litigating cases on behalf of clients, I was immediately struck by the lack of understanding, the misunderstanding and the misinformation that is out there about health and the health care industry as well as about how it literally touches and impacts our daily lives. I was also pretty surprised to learn that this misunderstanding wasn’t limited to just the general public but even to judges, arbitrators, mediators, other attorneys and even some health care providers. For me, as someone who grew up around medicine and the health care industry, this lack of understanding — and even the outright belief that a lot of misinformation that is out there is true when it isn’t — was a wake-up call.

I also saw how cultural beliefs and “old wives’ tales” could make it harder for people to take care of and protect their health. For example, there are still a lot of people across all walks of life that believe that drinking a chilled beverage can give you a cold, that garlic prevents a cold or that going outside with wet hair gets you sick. Perhaps the hardest of these beliefs to overcome is the almost ubiquitous one that I hear often when we do community health seminars. This is, “I feel fine, so why worry about anything? If I get sick, I will go to the doctor and he/she will fix it” (as if we were cars in need of repair).

From these experiences, I learned what would become the foundation of pH Labs. Namely, that the better educated we are about our bodies and what they need — from nutrition to exercise to healthy lifestyle choices — to stay healthy, the happier and longer lives we probably will have.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I, like most people I know, believed that the best way for me to achieve success and to make the greatest positive impact on people would be to follow the traditional, “tried and true” career path. So, after finishing my law degree at Loyola University, I dutifully became a staff attorney at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This was followed by a stint as an attorney with a public legal services group and then work in private practice with a law firm.

So, looking from the outside, I was doing all the “right” things professionally. In fact, had the law firm I was with not disbanded, I probably could have made partner. I can tell you that had I continued on that path, my life would have turned out quite differently. When that firm did close its doors, I was at a crossroads. I could continue on the “expected path” or take the risk of venturing out on my own. I chose the latter and despite some misgivings from friends and family — who nevertheless supported my decision — I started my own firm. Vince Acquisto and George Colman joined me shortly thereafter and we were off-and-running.

So, the biggest mistake I made (which turned out to be a blessing-in-disguise) was not seeing there are many, many ways to get to a point in our careers where we can really make a difference. But because I took the risk, I have been able to dedicate both my professional and personal lives to supporting causes that have helped me realize my passion for education and awareness of health care issues.

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None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I know it may sound trite, but these people would undoubtedly be my mother and my brother. They made such an impact on me, and influenced me so greatly, that I even dedicated my first book, Minerals: The Forgotten Nutrient, Your Guide to Getting and Staying Heathy to them. The dedication reads: “I dedicate this book to my mother, Gladys Young, and brother, Herman Ricketts, MD, who both taught me the importance of empowering myself through education.”

My brother was always concerned about doing all he could to help his patients, without ever worrying if they could pay him or not. For him, the true reward of being a doctor was how he could make his patients’ lives better. His example played a role in my ongoing involvement in health-related charitable causes as well as my decision to create Proactive Heath Labs. Seeing how the organization’s activities, such as free nutritional testing and ongoing health education, have helped people get and stay healthier is incredibly gratifying.

From my mother, I acquired my curiosity and passion for learning — a passion that I still very much have and that accounts for my being a voracious reader. She also taught me that the key to getting ahead and accomplishing our goals is a combination of education and good, old fashioned grit and determination. Her belief in the importance of education can been seen in the mission and philosophy of pH Labs. So, the health aspect of my personal and professional lives comes from my brother; the lifelong learning and commitment to educating others, from my mother.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

There are three obstacles that, in my view, are holding society from being its healthiest, and pH Labs is doing its part to help overcome them through its health education and community outreach programs.

The first is nutrition. This may seem basic, but most people simply don’t know what nutrients their bodies need, in what quantities or how to make sure they get them. I can’t stress the importance of nutrition as the basis for a heathy life. I am sure that if more people knew that poor diet is the cause of more deaths than smoking or that 20 percent of deaths worldwide are linked to poor diet, they would hopefully eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods. Nutrition is so important that it is the basis and starting point with pH Labs’ work with its clients and communities. Without first making sure our bodies are getting the nutrients they need — carbohydrates, proteins, fats, water, vitamins and minerals — and in the right amounts, then all the rest we do to stay healthy, including exercise and other lifestyle choices, will not be as effective as they could otherwise be.

The second is that of prevention versus early detection of disease. Unfortunately, what many people call “prevention,” is really nothing more than trying to find, and then cure, a disease before it starts to cause irreparable damage to our bodies or even kill us. This view is so embedded that detection early in a disease’s progression is now considered prevention while detection later in that same progression is called treatment. And while early detection often results in more successful disease treatment outcomes, it is not, nor will it ever be, the same as prevention. A good example of how detection has become more important than prevention is with heart disease, the number one killer in the U.S. To help prevent it, your doctor may recommend cholesterol checks over the age of 40; obesity screening and counseling if you start to gain weight; and routine blood pressure screenings if you are over 20 to detect when your blood pressure gets too high. Why wait until these ages? Because this is when you’ll have the best chance of detecting evidence of cardiovascular problems.

The third is a focus on “sick care” versus “wellness care.” The unspoken agreement between health care providers and the communities they serve is “if you get sick, we are here to treat and do what we can to cure you.” Unless we collectively make a paradigm shift to one where wellness and prevention have equal (or greater) footing with sick care, we will never truly be healthy since we will always be waiting for the next “sickness” to treat.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

I actually have six tweaks I would recommend to anyone wanting to get and stay healthier. They are:

  • Take the time to educate yourself about how your body works so that you can take the necessary steps to stay healthy. This is important since no two people are alike. This includes ongoing and periodic nutrition testing to see what nutrients your body may have too little or too much of. It is important to be nutritionally balanced. Based on the results of your test, your doctor or other competent health care practitioner can make dietary recommendations, including supplements if indicated.
  • Focus less on body weight and more on your body fat. Excess body fat creates various imbalances which may reduce your chances of remaining healthy. Generally, women need at least 12 percent body fat for normal physiological functioning. Men need around 3 percent. Any body fat above those amounts is considered “nonessential fat.” In terms of acceptable ranges for good health, women should shoot for 20–32 percent, and men 10–22 percent. Believe it or not, body fat is usually a better predictor of overall health than the more well-known BMI measurement.
  • Stay hydrated with “good” water. It turns out that not all waters are created equal and water that is more alkaline (versus acidic) may have a lot of health benefits, especially as we get older. This water has a higher mineral content than plain water and may help our bodies maintain the ideal balance between acid and alkaline. This is especially important since most people’s diets tend to be pretty acidic, so alkaline water helps your body restore balance. It also has minerals that are beneficial to our health, such as magnesium and calcium.
  • Never count calories, make every effort to avoid processed foods, and eat tons of fruits, nuts and vegetables. I never have large meals and eat about 5 to 6 times daily. I never drink sodas and try to drink enough water to avoid thirst. I also never use the word “diet,” since that is usually something that someone goes on and then goes off. Just focus on including a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in every meal. You get bonus points if you prepare the meals at home to give you more control over portions and ingredients.
  • Empower yourself with credible information so you can make intelligent and informed decisions about your health. I don’t think it is solely up to a doctor to educate us about our health. Most doctors are trained to treat emergencies and acute health conditions. It is up to us to identify what it takes to maintain a healthy lifestyle so that we can reduce the likelihood of getting diseases or recover quickly from treatment our doctors recommend. And almost all doctors agree that the better educated a patient is, the better partner they are in making health care decisions. This also helps increase the probability of better treatment outcomes.
  • Make sure to have a good work-life balance. In my case, I have several hobbies. As I do with my work, I take them very seriously and I bring the same passion to them that I bring to helping our clients be their healthiest. For instance, I am a golf fanatic. I totally love the sport because the principles that make you a good golfer are those same principles that make you an effective businessperson or better yet, a better person. The game of golf teaches you so many lessons, the most important of which is learning what you can control, which is how you play, and accepting the outcome. My other hobbies are tennis, hiking, bowling, word games, video games and travel. More recently, I have resumed my interest in playing the piano. All these interests in hobbies either help me relax or make me more competitive — and often a combination of both. The old adage of “all work and no play” is very true!

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Given how important health education is to keep our society as healthy as possible, I would start a movement for universal health education instead of universal health care. Even if the latter were to come in to being (which is problematic to say the least), universal health care without universal “cradle to grave” health education would never achieve the goal of significantly reducing costs or improving health care in this country.

To better understand why universal health education is so important, think about a car. When we buy a new car — whether fresh off the production line or used — various regulations mandate that we are given an owner´s manual. As responsible consumers, we usually read the manual that comes with our new car. This is because we know that driving our cars without appropriate instructions about how to take care of them results in our having to pay more money to repair or replace the car.

Unfortunately, we do not get an “owner’s manual” when we’re born. So, most of us rely on our parents (who themselves may not be health educated), personal doctors (whose primary role is usually treating disease — not education), celebrity doctors on television, or Dr. Google to learn as much as we can.

Credible, well-researched, practical and easy-to-understand health education that starts in grammar school and continues through adult life would ensure that we have at least as much information about taking care of our health as we do about taking care of our cars.

In addition to the benefits of reducing the incidence of disease, consumer health education also offers significant economic benefits. It also could provide an almost immediate and very tangible benefit in improving nutrition in this country.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

I am the kind of person who always sees the glass as being “half full,” so I tend to always look for the positive side of something, even if that positive side may be a hard-earned lesson. But if I could go back in time and tell my younger self five things that I know now, they would have to be:

  • Know when to let go of something and move on to the next thing. We all have great ideas that don’t always turn into something great. I remember once congratulating a friend on the successful IPO of a company he had founded. I will never forget what he told me, which was, “Thanks, but you don’t know about the other 300 companies I started that never made it off the kitchen table.” There is no use beating our head against a wall if something is not going to work. Just let go of it and try something else.
  • What we do with our education is worth more than having it. Having a great education is a wonderful gift and privilege. It helps prepare us for life and may even help open professional doors. But if you don’t use this knowledge, share it with others and apply it to achieve a higher purpose or goal, then it quickly becomes a nice piece of paper we hang on our office wall. Education and knowledge, in my experience, tend to increase exponentially in value and benefit the more we use and share them. I see this every day with pH Labs and the difference the health education we provide makes in people’s lives.
  • Everyone and everything provide opportunities to learn and grow — use these opportunities to their fullest. I make it a point to try and listen more than I talk so I can really listen, versus just hear, what others are saying. Often, I end up learning something I didn’t know before from someone who I may have least expected would teach me something new. Parallel with this is to keep an open mind to different opinions or points-of-view. And often the most difficult, challenging or unpleasant situations offer the best lessons on how to do or see things differently. We are almost always invariably better for having had those experiences.
  • Everyone has a talent for something. I remember often hearing in an office that “this person just isn’t right for this job.” I would bet that it isn’t so much about the person being wrong for the job but rather the job being wrong for the person. The trick is matching a person’s true talents to the best job for them. Do that, and you have created a win-win for everyone. And, the same holds true for each of us personally as well.
  • Give people a chance to redeem themselves. I have learned that the old adage of “everyone deserves a second chance” is usually, but not always, be true. Sometimes we risk losing a great employee, a good friend or even a family member if we don’t allow the person who has made a mistake or offended us to “make things right.” Often times, they will not only redeem themselves but even go on to do better and greater things.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

While all are important to me, I would have to say the veganism would top the list given the role that plant-based diets have in keeping us healthy. In addition to the nutritional benefits of eating vegan, this approach to eating also eliminates many processed foods in the American diet, like donuts and baked goods, as well as many ingredients and additives which are basically not good for us. And I have noticed that by following a predominantly plant-based diet, I have more energy, sleep better and do not get sick as often.

I also promote the idea that if someone is going to go vegan, they need to do it right by discussing their plan with a competent health care professional.

They also need to be proactive by educating themselves about nutrition. Here are some basics to abide by:

  • We all need macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients include protein, carbohydrates, fats and water. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals. All together, these are the six essential nutrients we need in the right balance to live and be physically and mentally fit.
  • With a vegan diet, people tend to get a high number of micronutrients, because plant foods are very nutrient-dense. This is, in my opinion, one of the biggest benefits of a vegan diet. And don’t let the word “micro” fool you. We all need an adequate intake on a daily basis of vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin A and many other micronutrients, in order to be physically and mentally healthy.
  • Another huge benefit of a vegan diet is that it tends to be very low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in dietary fiber. This is great for helping prevent cancer and metabolic issues such as obesity and hypertension.

It’s also important that people following a vegan diet get tested for nutritional deficiencies, especially of vitamins B12 and D, calcium, and long-chain n-3 (omega-3) fatty acids.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

I would first invite them to visit our website, www.phlabs.org, where they can find a wealth of information on how to get and stay healthy. They can also follow pH Labs on Facebook at Proactive Health Labs; YouTube at Proactive Health Labs; Instagram at _phlabs; Twitter at @_pHLabs; or Pinterest at proactivelabs.

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Dr. William Seeds

Written by

Board-certified orthopedic surgeon and physician, with over 22 years of experience, specializing in all aspects of sports medicine and total joint treatments

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Dr. William Seeds

Written by

Board-certified orthopedic surgeon and physician, with over 22 years of experience, specializing in all aspects of sports medicine and total joint treatments

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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