Chamberlain helps patients live the life they want

May 9, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Ever since he crashed his mountain bike as a teenager, Dr. Jeffrey L. Chamberlain has firmly believed that listening to patient questions and providing answers is an essential part of medical care — as much as suturing wounds and setting broken bones.

It’s a big part of why he’s an M.D. today, instead of an airline pilot like his dad.

Chamberlain, who has a family practice at Advantage Health/Saint Mary’s Medical Group, actually wears several hats. He has been an entrepreneur who launched a successful natural cough remedy called Honey Don’t Cough; he is an assistant clinical professor at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids; and he is now on the staff of HelloLife LLC as the director of education and research.

Both of his grandfathers were what he calls “old-time doctors.” At the funeral of one of them, strangers came up to him and told him how his grandfather had changed their lives for the better, including the fact that he “always took the time to listen.”

By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Chamberlain thought he might follow in his father’s footsteps and become an airline pilot. Then that mountain bike accident in Maine, on a trip with the Boy Scouts, changed his path forever. First came the ER doctor’s reaction when Chamberlain was brought in with serious lacerations to his hands and side. The doctor took one look and reacted “like he just freaked out.” That, in turn, “really freaked me out,” said Chamberlain.

Although it wasn’t known at first, Chamberlain also had a broken collarbone. When he returned to his Chicago-area home and went to an orthopedic surgeon, he desperately wanted to know what he needed to do to get well enough to resume high school sports in the fall. “He kind of blew me off,” said Chamberlain, and after announcing it was a broken collarbone, the doctor walked out.

“I was stuck with all these questions,” said Chamberlain. Despite his young age, he said he came to a startling conclusion. “These doctors aren’t telling me what I need to know.”

“I think that’s a big reason why I’m a family doctor,” he said. “I spend a lot of time talking with people, educating people, finding out how their diseases are interfering with their lives, and what we can do to help them live the life they want to live. That’s a huge focus in what I do as a physician.”

Chamberlain attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned two bachelor of science degrees simultaneously, one in molecular and integrative physiology and the other in chemistry. “I picked up a second degree in chemistry because I tended to take an extra class each semester,” he explained.

Then it was on to med school at Southern Illinois University.

As for his medical specialty, he had wide-ranging interests that included surgery and pediatrics, but ultimately opted for family practice. “In the long run, what I enjoyed most was getting to know people over time and being able to help them over the long term,” he said.

In the largest cities, there are so many medical specialties that family practice tends to be shoved aside, he said. So he and his wife picked Grand Rapids for his residency.

“It’s a decent-sized city; my wife kind of likes that. At the same time, there is a really strong family practice presence here in Grand Rapids, so it was a great opportunity for me to do my residency and learn here.”

In the last year of his three-year residency, Chamberlain prepared a presentation on treating coughs and colds in kids, and learned there is a growing body of research that indicates that some medications are not as safe for young children as once thought. In a few cases, cold and cough medicines have actually been fatal when very young children were given an overdose.

He also learned that research supported an old belief that buckwheat honey helped a child with a bad cough — and it was safe. Buckwheat honey is a dark honey that contains different compounds than clover honey, according to the Honey Don’t Cough website. Chamberlain said he started recommending it to parents, but only about 20 percent actually tried to find it. The other 80 percent scoffed. “They said if it really worked, they’d sell it at the pharmacy,” he said.

Several weeks later when their 17-month-old daughter Violet developed a bad cough, Christine Chamberlain began searching pharmacies for buckwheat honey to no avail, finally finding it at a health food store. “I said, ‘This is crazy,’” said Chamberlain. “The pharmacist told me, ‘We can’t put a jar of buckwheat honey on the pharmacy shelf, because it’s not going to sell,’” he recalled. The pharmacist said it had to be packaged to look like medication, “otherwise people aren’t going to buy it.”

That inspired the Chamberlains to start their own business to market buckwheat honey as a cough remedy; their first production began appearing on shelves in December 2008. Christine Chamberlain is a teacher who put her career on hold while their children are young, so she managed the business from home. Before they launched the business, the Chamberlains had talked to the purchasing staff at Meijer Inc., who explained what retailers look for in new products. “Meijer was incredibly helpful,” said Chamberlain. Once sales began picking up in 2009, Meijer began stocking the product. Today, it is sold in pharmacies in more than a dozen states, as well as online.

Chamberlain said he and his wife put quite a bit of their own money into their venture, but “the better we did, the more things cost.” A full-time sales rep was working the field, and as orders improved, more investment in overhead and production was required. In January, the Chamberlains sold Honey Don’t Cough to HelloLife LLC, 4460 44th St. SW, Grandville, which markets over-the-counter “relief products” that are registered with the FDA, according to its website.

In April, Chamberlain was named education and research director at HelloLife In that role, he pursues his interest in natural products that really work, and often discusses them with Albert Duoibes, CEO and president of HelloLife. Chamberlain also is a blogger for HelloLife and will be featured in a series of educational videos on health issues that begin airing in a couple of months.

Does Chamberlain have any ideas for another new company?

“I have so many things on my plate now that my wife has kind of put an official damper on any new projects unless I get them checked out with her first,” joked Chamberlain. That type of energy now goes into his role at HelloLife.

But Chamberlain does, in fact, have another health issue in sharp focus these days: “Proper diet and nutrition — and getting to healthy weight. There is a huge problem with the growing obesity in the U.S.,” he said. “Most medical problems I see in my office are related to obesity.”

Chamberlain is keyed in to recent research indicating that snacking 10 times a day can help one get down to the proper weight — but the key is snacking only on fruits and vegetables.

“In the last year, I have lost 40 pounds, and I did it mostly just by trying to eat a full 10 servings of fruits and vegetables every day,” he said.

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