If you review Dr. Sapna Sriram’s LinkedIn’s page or any other social channels she actively belongs to, you start to wonder how this leading Canadian chiropractic physician finds time to practice, run an integrated health clinic, be a wife and mom, and still act as a media personality as Toronto’s go-to injury expert. This is a woman with a level of passion and driving energy that is remarkable. Sapna entered her field fiercely intent on making a ripple in the way health care professionals communicate. She put this objective into action when she and her business partner opened a collaborative full-service health facility that respectfully marries eastern and western medicine with a common goal of optimizing patient outcome. She’s a voice for women in sports therapy and an advocate for spreading awareness and information on important health topics like concussions and the opioid crisis. But at the end of the day, Sapna is getting home to her family to tuck her children into bed. Her life is by no means low-key but she’s found that sharing it along the way has helped keep her on track, all while building credibility and trust with her patients and her community. Sapna continues to elevate her game as a professional and as a mother, hushing mom guilt by reminding herself she’s building a foundation for her children. The best qualification Sapna carries, however, does not come in a title or accomplishment but rather in her down-to-earth, instantly friendly charm and her ability to open up and be vulnerable while sharing the story of both her professional and personal journey.
Never let someone tell you that you can't do your job because of your gender, size, or race
Being a successful role model to my children – especially my daughter
Listening and deeply understanding my patients
I was quite insecure when I was younger and didn't know what I was good at
I strive towards breaking down barriers and doing what’s unconventional
I've failed many times; I almost didn't get my clinic
I have a strong belief in giving back to the world
ASANA is a game changer and FREE
I know you wear several different hats, Sapna. Can you run me through the gamut?
I’m a practicing chiropractor and registered acupuncturist. I’m condensing my somewhat full time practice right now into four clinical half-days. I also run a busy medical and wellness clinic – Integra Health Centre – right in the heart of Toronto’s financial district. Over the last couple of crazy years I’ve spent a lot of my time helping run the back end of the clinic: the marketing, the managing, the day-to-day – and also working on growth. Additionally, I act as a voice in the community and an injury expert in Toronto, so I spend a lot of time doing various media interviews and different communications for things related to injury. For example, right now I’m a spokesperson for the Canadian Chiropractic Association. And then when I’m not doing all of that, I’m doing my best as a mom and as a wife to my husband.
Wow, that’s a heavy plate!
Well, I love what I do so it actually doesn’t feel that bad; this month has been crazy because of the new house, but most days I feel like I’m good and it’s manageable. There are other days that I feel like I’m drowning though – much like everybody else.
Let’s start by talking about the chiropractic profession. What drew you to the field?
I knew for a really long time I wanted to be a health professional. I thought inside the box – like everybody else – for a while. I thought I should be a doctor because that’s what health care is, but I wasn’t really passionate or excited about it. As I got closer to the end of my undergraduate program I was exposed to chiropractic, dentistry and a few other non-medical health care professions. Something stuck with chiropractic; at the time a lot of people were against the chiropractic profession which was actually great for me – the mixed reviews really motivated me. I’d also always hear how hard it was for a woman to pursue a career in chiropractic, or that I was too small to be a chiropractor, or that I’d never be in sports therapy. I’m someone who, if you tell me that I can’t do something, I want to prove you wrong. As a patient I tried it and loved it and I decided it was something that I definitely wanted to do.
What came next?
I didn’t want to be a traditional chiropractor, cracking backs and adjusting patients all day; I wanted to create change in my field. Even throughout the four years I was in chiropractic school I kept wanting to do more, so I took a ton of courses. I was doing acupuncture and continuing education courses concurrently; most people wait until completion before piling on more schooling, but I decided to do it all at the same time. I’m a bit of a nut job. I was also the student chiropractic rep for the Canadian Chiropractic Association, and then under that umbrella there was a position for a little sub-group called the Interprofessional Committee, so I ended up becoming the co-chair of that too. That was an opportunity for a bunch of different medical program students to interact and drive awareness about one another’s fields – dentistry and medicine, for example. That’s what lit the spark for me – I decided to do an MBA as soon as I finished my chiropractic. I was so used to being a student I thought going straight into applying for the MBA program made sense. I enrolled in the GMAT, which I did a day after I passed my licensing exams – I studied for three days and actually got a good score – I think I was just excited, that in itself was a shocker! I got in to Schulich and did my MBA part time while I was practicing.
Can you tell me about the services you personally provide?
I’m a very integrated, therapeutic chiropractor, so I’m treating in a functional movement style. Like I said, I’m a registered acupuncturist as well – I hold dual registrations – so I do both traditional TCM as well as medical acupuncture therapies. I incorporate a lot of manual therapies like active release techniques, and I use instruments as tools to release and work on fascial and muscle injuries. I do cupping, exercise prescription, and a lot of taping, especially for my athletes. I also use energy medicine and corrective exercises; I see myself as a sports therapist using varied modalities that includes chiropractic adjustments.
What prompted you to take the leap and open up your own clinic?
I’m obviously really passionate about interprofessional health care models and I kept seeing this huge gap. Around 2014 my business partner (Alyza Raithantha) and I were working at the same clinic – she was running the administrative aspect of it – and she kept pointing out how we always refer patients somewhere else and then we never know what happens to them. We sent patients to all these different specialists and there was no continuity. For me, it was always frustrating; outside of maybe working with a physio or family doctor, we didn’t have enough collaborative resources. We also both thought it was really interesting that downtown Toronto – the busiest demographic in the city – didn’t have an integrated health care clinic outside of maybe a paid membership clinic.
And so you launched Integra Health Centre together?
Yes; it’s actually our two year anniversary this Friday. We provide an integrated approach to all medical needs, including family medicine and walk-in, and then we also have specialists and literally every type of allied health care under the sun. I don’t think that one person always has the answer, so I really wanted to create a team-based approach to helping people; that’s why we’ve got osteopathy, chiropractic, naturopathy, physiotherapy, pelvic floor physiotherapy, massage therapy, psychotherapy – pretty much anything with a therapy at the end is on the team.
As you mentioned, the integrated health model was a fairly new concept and still is in some parts of the country. Could you elaborate on what the communication between practices looks like, beyond just being in the same building?
Everyone can call themselves a multi-disciplinary clinic, but being in the same building is really just a rent model – people are just bringing on different therapists because it covers rent. It makes for a big misconception – in reality, a lot of those therapists never see or speak to one another because there’s no system in place for true collaboration. When I built Integra, I wanted to be completely transparent and accountable, with no silos. The backend administration happens between the family doctor, all the specialists and all the allied health practitioners; our infrastructure is designed that way purposefully so everyone has admin access together and everyone can physically see one another at some point during the day. We also made sure our patient EMRs (electronic medical records) were built to be conducive to collaboration and communication.
Beyond opening up dialogue, you’ve said that this structure also streamlines diagnosis. Can you explain?
I’ll give an example: someone may come in with symptoms that look like a heart attack or angina (chest pain) and be screened completely clear of having any sort of internal issues. It may turn out they actually have a physical mechanical injury that’s mimicking those symptoms, but it’s much easier for someone to figure that out when they’ve had exposure to colleagues who may have treated for that. Sharing experiences plus treatments and results really gives therapists opportunities to all chime in and collaborate to improve our patient outcome.
Was it difficult to set up that model?
It’s always a challenge dealing with people; everyone has different personalities and everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences. We hired with our integration and collaboration goals in mind, so one of the big items on our checklist was belief in the model. We’ve been fortunate enough to have built the kind of reputation where lots of people want to work for and with us, but it’s about fit. We’re really selective. You can be the best in your field but if you have God complex – if you think you know everything and everyone else’s skillset is useless – you won’t fit. We’re all about transparency, openness and open-mindedness. Some doctors aren’t perceptive to east-meets-west medicine, and here we’re trying to provide evidence-based structures for everything we do, but there are certain therapies some of our allied health provide that doctors aren’t always exposed to. The biggest thing is that everyone has respect for what everyone else does and is willing to learn and see different perspectives.
Your title in the media work you do is injury expert - tell me about that.
You know what, I just really liked the ring of it. It was really interesting to me that chiropractors, physios and other health professionals were all in the media putting themselves under the umbrella of health and wellness expert, but no one talks specifically about injuries as much. Ninety per cent of Canadians suffered an injury to their muscles or joints last year, so I saw a huge market segment and branded myself as the go-to injury expert here in my area. It wasn’t sexy at first; there are a lot of fitness experts and diet experts but really no injury experts – in the last four or five years I’ve kind of been the only branded one out there. I take a lot of pride in knowing that I’m helping people understand multiple solutions and treatment options so they don’t have to live in pain.
Do you find that patients tend to go for the band aid fix rather than correcting their problems by getting at the root?
We talk so much about prevention but don’t typically act using a preventative model; this is actually something I coach health care professionals on. A patient may dictate their treatment plan in the sense that they’ll come in being at 9 out of 10 pain level and the therapist might be able to get their pain down to a 1 or a 2 within two or three sessions – which is great. But because patients’ education and knowledge is so fixated on pain equals injury and no pain equals recovery, they’ll discharge themselves thinking they’re better. Therapists struggle with this because there’s obviously a root cause; their headaches may be under control now but they have posture issues that cause recurrence – but what’s being done to change those issues? It’s not usually possible to fully correct that kind of thing within a few visits, so a lot of the time it’s about educating patients on the other things involved: ergonomics, exercise strategies et cetera.
How do you address the importance of prevention and maintenance?
I do a lot of educational outreach on simple things, like backpack safety and how to save your kid from having postural issues later. I also do screening work with youth athletes; a lot of the time I like to look for asymmetry in ages as young as 7 or 8. Starting with parents, coaches and the kids themselves is key; with kids, 50 per cent of sports injuries are preventative, so educating them young can help ensure our kids are more fit and healthy now and as they turn into adults.
What other recent topics have you discussed in the media?
Today I did an interview on the opioid crisis; 80 per cent of those Canadians who had muscle or joint injuries last year resorted to medication first. It’s a sad statistic, and really astonishing that people pop pills to suppress the pain rather than actually deal with their injury. I do a lot of work in concussion talk, too. I lost my dad to a concussion four years ago so it’s really important to me to shine a light on the reality of concussions. It’s an invisible injury; I like to talk about the hidden things that people might not know about, like mental health and how concussions affect it, post concussion symptoms and the latent effects from concussions. At times we don’t really put two and two together with the later onset of certain concussion symptoms. I’ve also done talks on how to be active at your workstation, which fits into the lifestyle talks I do a lot of – I try to make things engaging by including some fun content with some really serious content.
Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur and what does that mean to you?
I don’t know anything else outside what I’ve done. Not knowing where my next paycheque is coming from has always excited me, and since I don’t technically work for anybody else, I think yes, I’m an entrepreneur. Even before I had Integra, I felt self-employed and entrepreneurial; I heavily relied on myself to build up my practice and grow and market my patient base. I think what it means to be an entrepreneur is really following your own path to work toward a goal that’s self-directed, regardless if you’re working with a team or not.
The self-branding trend has started to pick up in the medical profession but wasn’t typical when you first started, right?
Five years ago nobody ever thought about having a website or an Instagram page; when I first started doing it I was one of the first very few – now there are tons of people with Facebook pages and everything and I think it’s great. The more of us that are doing it, the more we’re spreading the wealth of knowledge to patients. People need to know more about health and their bodies – you’d be astonished at how many people I see – even people in their 30s or 40s – who have zero understanding of what to do when they’re injured.
Why do you think that is?
Again, I think it’s education. Some people only see their doctors for annual physicals or when they’re sick with a cold, or not at all. A lot of people rationalize pain as normal; you know, like ‘it’s normal for me to have shoulder pain because I sit at a desk all day,’ or ‘it’s normal for me to have headaches because I work a lot of hours,’ or ‘it’s normal that I can’t sleep.’ It’s not normal to be in pain; I think we’re finally starting to talk more about it.
The old school version of a doctor is in a white lab coat behind a closed door, but that’s not how you market yourself. How has being the new, accessible version helped your career and what was your intention in your self-branding?
For me it’s about building a rapport so that people feel like they can approach me outside my office walls. I want people to feel they have resources! A lot of the time it isn’t necessary to book an appointment for certain questions or issues. People want to know how they can stretch their backs out at work, or how foam rolling works best, or how to set up an ergonomic workstation. Putting myself and the education out there has encouraged people to seek out options and helped people while simultaneously allowing me to gain visibility. I try to be approachable by giving people a look inside my life; I don’t just post clinical and education content on Instagram for example – I post pictures of my kids, or what I’m doing for the day, things that show my work-life balance. I’m a mom and a business owner, I’m a real person with the same struggles and issues as everyone else, and I am comfortable putting myself out there – I don’t have anything to hide.
Has creating the Dr. Sapna brand posed any challenges?
No, not really – other than keeping up with it. I think the biggest challenge is being consistent and finding time to do it. I have help now, so I’ve outsourced some of that; I can’t do everything by myself, I’d burn out. I’ve never had any negative backlash though I did get some weird people messaging me at times, but it’s mostly positive. I have had a few random people ask me to marry them though!
Perfect segway to talking about your personal life, ha! You’re a wife and a mom to a three-year-old daughter and a son who is nearly 10 months old. How do you find balance between your family life, your other passions and your professional responsibilities?
It’s always a struggle and I’m always going to have mom guilt; whenever I try and do anything I wonder if my kids are going to hate me. I started building my clinic when my daughter was nine months old and we opened when she was 15 months, and in that time span the only bonding I had with her was nursing. It was sad, I felt like I was just basically her wet nurse and I was very down but I kept reminding myself I was doing it all for her. I do everything for my family; hopefully she has the opportunity when she’s older to have things that I didn’t have when I was growing up.
How do you manage that guilt?
I feel like I’m in a place now where I can schedule things in a way to make sure I have certain times that are for family only. With my husband it might mean we pay a babysitter so we can go for dinner and reconnect. Today is one example – it’s supposed to be my nanny’s day off but because I have these meetings and we’re listing our place, we’re keeping our nanny for a couple extra hours and my husband and I are going to go for lunch. Otherwise when do you find time? I feel like if I don’t make time, I’d suffer; my mental health would be compromised. I’m home from 3 p.m. onwards three days a week and I work a little later two days a week, but I’m always there for bedtime. If I need to get more work done or have a meeting, I’ll push it until after the kids go to bed or reschedule during work hours because I’ve made decisions on what I’m willing to compromise on or sacrifice – it’s allowed me to be a lot more present.
There are also certain things I don’t let anyone else do. I’m the only one that baths my son – that’s my thing, when him and I get to connect, and I like it. Everyone always asks why I don’t offload that; my husband says he hasn’t washed him since he was born and I’m like, ‘yeah it’s going to stay that way, it’s my thing!’ I feel like if I don’t have a few things that are mine that’s when I’m really going to feel like I’m missing out on their upbringing. I was like that with my daughter, too – there are certain things that are just for me and her one-on-one. It gives me a sort of peace of mind to spend quality time with each of them.
So it’s back-and-forth between family life and continuously pursuing the next learning opportunity and the next career move - where does your endless energy come from?
Someone once psychoanalysed me and told me that once I achieve an accomplishment I’m happy in that moment and then I’m onto the next one. I don’t know if that’s true, but I feel like I’ve always been on a path to really do something career-wise. I’m a hustler, trying to get as much done in my lifetime as I can to really create change and ensure the footprint I leave behind for my kids is positive. To be honest with you, I don’t know what motivates me. I’ve thought about it a lot, but I think it’s that I just really love what I do and I truly want to make an impact on the world; I’m constantly motivated by the next possible accomplishment.
What is your next professional goal?
I would say there are two because I always feel like my clinic goals are different than my Dr. Sapna practice goals. I would say my practice goal is to continue to keep breaking down the barriers for women working in sports therapy. There is a huge disconnect between female therapists in professional sports – and also just chiropractors in general – and there’s a huge opportunity for us to expand our role in that environment. Women tend to bring a different type of therapeutic touch to injury treatment and prevention and how we deal with patients. It’s really funny because in general there are more female health care professionals in those fields but when you look at the sports industry it’s very male-dominant.
For Integra and my clinic, my goal is to continue to expand our integrated health care model. That might mean more locations – that’s something we’re starting to look at – but we’re also thinking about developing some online platforms and e-services to help increase access to an integrated approach to injuries and health. There isn’t anything specifically in the works for either, but those are the potential next steps.