It’s a cool Autumn morning and I’m sitting down with the Director of Western Health Collective, Jennifer Cook, to have a nice warm drink and a chat, at a great new bookshop, The Chestnut Tree in West Footscray. We chose a sunny spot near the window in the front of the shop, to warm up. Jen likes to sit in the sun, and it suits her. Her vibrance, her energy, her drive to make the world a better place, one person at a time. She’s a beacon.
She sips tea, and exhales, enjoying the pleasures that a nice cuppa can bring. It’s her deep understanding of the difference simple things can make to a person’s well being that have driven the success of WHC over the last 6 years.
The Western Health Collective is a multidisciplinary clinic focussed on chronic health, a one-stop-shop as it were, having helped tens of thousands of clients navigate their own health journeys.
So what drives a person to go to such great lengths and personal sacrifice to create such a business? As these stories often go, it came from her own health experiences, and a compulsion to make a change.
“My goal was to change how chronic health was treated in the community.”
For many years Jennifer was forced to battle both her own chronic illness, and the management of her health pathways, carrying the burden of the information transfer between specialists; a challenging task even for a healthy person.
Her experiences motivated her to train as a reflexologist, and then to run a small clinic from her home called Inner Reflexion, which would reinforce her views on the healthcare system and inspire her to create greater impact.
“One of the things that came out within a month of opening was that my first 7 clients were autoimmune clients, and the conversations I was having with them was not just how was their health in the room that day, but what else were they doing in their lives to support themselves with a chronic illness. It became crystal clear there was a lack of awareness of all the different aspects of their lives that could affect their condition, and also how to coordinate it.
So the 4 years of Inner Reflexion involved building up an extensive network. It meant finding other therapists who worked specifically with chronic conditions, and had the same ethos and principles as I did. We were working within peoples means, not just financial but also therapeutic. It’s mentally and physically exhausting to go to appointments, so we would coordinate with each other. It was reimagined patient-led case management.
“Normally, the onus is on the patient to do all the work, yet they are the one who only has 30 -70% of the normal energy levels, to expend on anything”
It was clear to Jennifer very early on that the outcomes for her clients would be far better if she could remove that burden for them. But she needed a bigger clinic, and more clinicians who could work closely together.
“We wanted to alleviate that problem. We could be the conduit, we could refer, we could collaborate, we could case manage together.
The initial plan was a small clinic, a 3-4 consult room place, and then 571 Barkly St came up. It was 3 times the size of what I was aiming for, but (my partner) Bruce sat down with me and convinced me to take the leap, confident that we would fill it. I had never run a business before other than my own small clinic, but we leaped, and it worked.”
It isn’t often that chronic illness comes in handy, but Jennifer’s own 15 year experience which had taken her through many other clinics, had taught her a lot about the importance of a warm and welcoming space, and fueled her determination to create the best clinic possible, where clients would feel safe and secure, and knew they were going to get help.
“If clinics feel sterile, you do not feel well. The place had to make you feel better walking in the door. I had a really strong vision“
So, in January of 2017, Jennifer opened the Western Health Collective, and within 6 months had grown to 20 people, prompting her to step down as a clinician, and focus on the role as Director and practice manager.
What set WHC apart from other clinics, other than its atmosphere and vintage decor, was the ability to triage clients, leading to greater amounts of clients getting help, and ultimately having a greater impact.
“I wanted to help more people, but I couldn’t do it on an hour by hour basis”
There was a certain glint in Jennifer’s eye as the conversation approached the topic of impact, and it’s obvious that being a change maker is one of her deepest passions.
Like a ripple in a pond
As director and mentor, she helped the other practitioners grow, which had a much bigger knock on effect. When reflecting on the decision to stand down as a practitioner, a strong sense of satisfaction emulated from her, a decision which she chalked up to a natural progression.
“I had thrown a pebble into a pond, and as the ripples went out, more people threw pebbles in, and I just decided I would stay at the centre of that, and ensure those ripples kept going, and it worked really well.”
The clinic was thriving, and empowering its clients to take possession of their own health, using proven allied health treatments to work with western medicine and be part of the client’s plan, like nutrition, psychology and acupuncture, for the simple goal of feeling better.
At the end of 2019, The WHC became a community partner of the The Westsider newspaper, and each month since, has been contributing simple and practical techniques and treatments for better health and general well being.
“I really wanted to partner up and do more for the community, as that was the whole point, a community clinic. I approached the editor Derek, because I thought, here’s an avenue for a conversation with the community that we could put into the newspaper. We have all this information for people which lets them become more aware and empowered, and then do little things everyday to help themselves.”
Unlike many industries, the pandemic has forced change in a positive and meaningful way in health care, and you can hear in her voice the enthusiasm Jennifer has for the permanent introduction of telehealth and SMS-based comms like e-scripts. People suffering from chronic illness, especially rural people, were able to access therapists and reduce time spent travelling to appointments, sitting in waiting rooms, plus limit the risk of exposure from the general public in the process. These outcomes have been on the list of improvements WHC has strived for, and so they are happy with the result, even if only as a side effect of the pandemic.
It’s All About The People
Our cups are empty and the sunshine has disappeared, but as usual, our conversations are motoring on. I ask about all the different people that have passed through the WHC doors, and Jennifer goes on to explain in detail, the amazing practitioners who have worked in the clinic, their ethos, and desire to collaborate. Some have moved on to set up new businesses and done great things, some staff members have been inspired to change their careers to become healthcare workers.
So many stories, and then stories from the community. The simple joy of bumping into a client in the supermarket, and enjoying a moment as they share their recent positive outcomes, or improved mental health, or even a hard earned pregnancy. For Jennifer, knowing that people haven’t had to go through what she did to get there, is the big payoff.
A New Vehicle For Change
“You find a new vehicle in which to continue the work.. I’m still about awareness and empowerment, I’m still about changing how chronic health is done in the community. That’s never going to change, because that’s the vocation, drive, and passion that I have.
Whatever the next framework is, that vision is always going to be there. So the message and ethos behind everything I do is still the same, it’s just that the vehicle with which to achieve it, it’s time for that to change now.
It’s time for all my amazing collaborators and team to go and make ripples in other ponds, so I too, can go into another pond and make ripples there. It’s time to evolve.
If you want to change the way chronic health is treated in the world, you need a lot of people to help you, and lots of people who believe in the same thing.
We’ve seen tens of thousands of people at WHC, so that’s tens of thousands of people who have more awareness and empowerment, and are managing their health in a better way“
A quick glance at her watch, and we are both drawn back to the present. We’re well over time. As we say our farewells, there is a question I can see swirling around in her head.
Which pond can we create ripples in now?
The Westsider would like to thank the Western Health Collective for all its support over the last few years, and wish all the amazing team the best in the future.