Medical Director of Metabolic Nutrition and Weight Management, St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital
Meet Dr. Tom Rifai, a native of Bloomfield Hills and a graduate of Michigan State University and Wayne State Medical School. Dr. Rifai presently serves as the medical director of Metabolic Nutrition and Weight Management, St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital, and lives with his wife, Angela, near downtown Birmingham.
“We met when I was working at Pritikin in Miami and she was visiting from Colombia,” he says. “It was love at first sight — for me!”
He always knew that he wanted to pursue a career that would enable him to help people. “Both my parents were physicians, but as new immigrants from Syria, they thought there would be better ways for me to achieve the American dream than medicine,” he says. “But once I made my decision, they supported me 110 percent. I was working toward a psychology degree, but figured out late in the game that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do.
“My ‘a-ha!’ moment came while I was pursuing an exercise science undergrad studying in the cadaver lab at MSU and I overheard a professor teaching med students about the heart of a man that ate poorly, didn’t exercise and suffered from depression,” he said. “That encapsulated all three majors I tried — psychology, nutrition and exercise — and at that moment I knew I needed to be a doctor!”
Industry changes: Prevention is becoming a higher priority for insurance providers, corporations and the government. And with the increasing costs of healthcare, people are really starting to embrace prevention through healthier lifestyles. I support the Affordable Care Act’s mandatory calorie labeling in larger restaurant chains. It helps people at the point of purchase, so they can make more informed and, hopefully, healthier decisions.
Professionally speaking: I am passionate about my job because I suffer from the tendencies of my patients. I weighed over 200 pounds when I was 19 — that’s a lot for someone who’s barely 5 feet 7 inches tall — and I was pre-diabetic by the end of my internal medicine residency. When I’m helping them, I’m helping myself at the same time.
Proudest career accomplishment: I’ve helped build a comprehensive lifestyle and weight management program at St. Joe’s Oakland. It’s a unique, successful and thriving program and has the strong support of hospital administration. The average one-year weight loss for patients in the program is 13 percent, well above the industry standard. And that’s just part of what we do. We also help patients deal with or prevent diabetes, vascular disease, even cancer.
Another thing I’m proud of is being asked by Harvard to author an online Lifestyle Medicine course on the prevention of type 2 diabetes. Presently, more than 1,000 physicians have taken the course.
Career thoughts: There isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to what we do. Every new patient is an individual journey. And we like to encourage their family members to attend our lifestyle groups and classes. When a family gets involved, the patient’s likelihood of success increases dramatically and everyone tends to get healthier because they’re all in sync. It’s like spreading a ‘get healthy’ virus!
Passion for: I love to travel and I’ve been to nearly 20 different countries. Our next trip is to Costa Rica, including the Nicoyan Peninsula, which is one of the five spots (‘Blue Zones’) on Earth where people are the healthiest and live longest. I like to combine my love for travel with my career passion whenever possible.
Life in Birmingham: It’s a walkable city with a bit of a European feel to it. It’s my personal ‘Blue Zone’. Everyone is friendly, and once in a while, there will be a celebrity sighting. I’ve run into some members of KISS at the Townsend, and I saw some of the guys from Metallica at Kroger. As a lifelong rock fan, that was pretty cool!
Favorite place to hang out: I like going to the movies, and I love the cafes and wide variety of healthy food options in Birmingham. If I had to pick a favorite restaurant, it would be Phoenicia.
My perfect day: Spending some time outdoors with my wife and taking the T-tops off my ’81 Camaro Z-28 and cruising up and down Woodward. I love the Dream Cruise!
What most people don’t know about me: I’m a rocker and have played guitar since I was 14. I used to be in a couple bands, but now I jam solo just for stress relief. Years ago, I was part of a charity project that helped raise money for the fight against Alzheimer’s disease and pediatric cancer. My band recorded several tracks for an international KISS tribute CD project. I got to meet a lot of cool musicians from all over the world. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience! NS
– Interviewed by Matthew Totsky