Published March 16, 2004
Volume 12, Number 3

Dr. Mark Christiansen Treats People, Not Patients

By Jay Hipps

Winston Churchill once said of a political enemy, “He’s a humble man, with much to be humble about.” While Mark Christiansen, M.D., displays remarkable humility, it’s certainly not a reflection of his accomplishments as an endocrinologist. His resume features stints as a researcher at UCSF and the University of California at Berkeley in addition to his current activities in his private practice and his position as medical director of the ValleyCare Diabetes and Nutrition Education Center. His unpretentious attitude reflects his philosophy towards his profession and the people he treats as well as his years of experience in his practice.
Dr. Mark Christiansen MDThat mindset is even evident in the furnishings of his office, which holds a rocking chair faced by two armchairs and a drafting table off to the side. He uses the rocker; there’s no desk anywhere. “If you’re sitting behind a desk you don’t quite have the same relationship,” he says. “Teachers sat behind desks; principals sat behind desks. It’s a slower practice. I don’t have to see ten people every hour, by design. I don’t want to practice medicine that way.”
His approach to medicine and to those who come see him he dislikes the use of the word ‘patient,’ stating “I don’t see patients, I see people”  also reflects the hands-on, personalized care that used to be expected of every doctor. To Dr. Christiansen, a physician experienced enough to recognize that each of the people that walks through his door is unique, it’s the only way to do things.
“Even though I might see six people with the same-named disease, they’re six individuals who have different ways of dealing with it,” he notes. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat and there’s more than one way to solve a problem for each individual, and I find that’s fun. It’s never the same thing that’s what I like about medicine.”
While that inherent uncertainty might be difficult for some people to cope with, his strong intellectual curiosity is a driving force in his world and has been for quite some time, showing up well before he picked his profession.
“I don’t know (why I chose medicine),” he says.  “Nobody in my family had even graduated from college. I think it just seemed like a fun thing to do. To me, asking questions about how the hormones in the body work, how the pituitary gland tells your thyroid to make a certain amount of thyroid hormone or how it tells the ovaries in a woman to ovulate at a certain time and to allow a pregnancy those are just neat questions! It’s just fun to think about.
“And it’s amazing that it ever works. It’s sort of like I turn on my computer and it works, and when it doesn’t I cuss and swear at it because it’s all supposed to work, but if you think about how amazing it is that a computer works, when all it’s working with is zeroes and ones. And then, all of the complexity of the ways the hormones interact with each other in ways that we haven’t even started to understand. It’s just cool.”
Dr. Christiansen was born in Fresno and grew up in Walnut Creek and has always lived in the Bay Area except for his eight years of medical school and residency in Cleveland. He returned to the Bay Area to do his fellowship in endocrinology at UCSF he raves about their “great clinical and research program” and then opened a private practice in Walnut Creek. It was his first real exposure to the uneasy relationship between medicine and commerce and was not an experience he enjoyed, so he moved back into research.
“I received grants from the National Institutes of Health and went back and worked in a lab at UC Berkeley from about 1995 until 2002,” he says.  He realized in that time that his future was in serving people as a physician, not in a laboratory, and that knowledge brought him to Pleasanton.
“Then there was an opportunity down here ValleyCare had a need for an endocrinologist and they were interested in addressing the needs of people with diabetes in particular, so it made sense to come down here and help out.”
It’s been a good fit for Dr. Christiansen because ValleyCare’s approach to the treatment of diabetes a multidisciplinary mix which includes diet, exercise, and medical input from a variety of specialists mirrors his own philosophy.
“When I spoke with Marcy Feit (president and CEO of ValleyCare Health System) over two years ago about starting a practice here, one of the things that I wanted to do was to have a diabetes center, because I believe in its importance, and fortunately they were thinking along the same path,” he explains. “The ValleyCare administration has supported the value of providing medical care to those with diabetes and it’s not just having a physician it’s also having the support of the dieticians and nurses or diabetes educators.”
Diabetes is of particular interest to the medical world right now as there has been a large increase in the number of people developing that disease.
“Right now in the Tri-Valley, one person in 16 has diabetes and that’s about double what it was 25 years ago,” he says. “Over the age of 60, it’s one person in six that has diabetes, and what’s really tragic about that is we know what precedes it: we can check blood pressure, we can check blood sugar easily, and we can define who’s at risk.
“Now, it only makes sense to know who’s at risk for this if you can do something about it ą and yes, you can, and it’s not all medications. A recent study came out showing that in the United States, if you identify someone who’s at risk for developing diabetes based on a simple two-hour test measure fasting blood sugar, drink some glucose, and then have another blood sugar check two hours later you can identify who’s got anywhere from a 5 to 20 percent risk per year of developing diabetes. If you put those people on exercise or if you prescribe for them 150 minutes of walking per week, along with losing 10 to 15 pounds of weight and keeping it off you can reduce their risk of developing diabetes by 60 percent.”
The challenge facing Dr. Christiansen and the staff of the ValleyCare Diabetes and Nutrition Education Center, a community resource for all doctors in the area, is in educating the public about these findings and the steps they can take to diminish the threat of developing diabetes.
“We really stress the self-management of diabetes. It’s the old idea of ‘give a man a fish and he’ll eat once; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life.’ So we try to teach the people how to fish, to use that metaphor. And we admit that some people like to throw a worm out and some people like to do fly fishing and some people like to go out in the middle of the ocean, so there’s all kinds of fishing. They get to decide for themselves how they want to do it.”
That may be the key to understanding Dr. Christiansen’s humility. No matter how great his enthusiasm for his profession or his fascination with the workings of the human endocrine system, he can’t live his patients’ lives for them. Their continued health is in their own hands.
It may also explain his current zeal for diabetes education. “I’ll bring my PowerPoint presentation to any business, anywhere, any time, and spread that word around. If people are given information, they can then incorporate it in their lives, but if we don’t give them the information, they’ll never know.”
Thanks to Dr. Christiansen, more people are learning all the time.


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