Disease prevention key goal for Carmel Valley resident and new director of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine

By Joe Tash

As a cardiologist, Dr. Christopher Suhar can help patients with blocked arteries by inserting a small mesh tube called a stent to improve circulation, or prescribe drugs such as statins to lower their cholesterol.

But his true passion is to help patients avoid the need for invasive treatments in the first place.

“What I like to do is prevent those things,” said Suhar, 40, a Carmel Valley resident who was recently appointed director of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine.

“Integrative medicine is a blending of Eastern and Western medicine, an understanding in medicine that the mind, the body and the spirit are closely linked and interplay with each other,” said Suhar.

“I am a trained, board-certified cardiologist. But I believe the way one lives, their lifestyle, the environment they’re in, those issues have an immense impact on their health, it’s not just about a drug or a procedure,” he said.

Western medicine has its place, Suhar said, recalling an incident when his infant daughter suffered a spider bite and her life was saved by antibiotics.

In many cases, though, patients are better served when their health is looked at in a broader way, considering not only their medical conditions, but their diet, exercise and stress level, he said.

Techniques such as acupuncture, biofeedback, yoga and healing touch can help patients with chronic conditions ranging from heart disease and diabetes to pain, obesity and fatigue, according to Suhar.

In the past, he said, both patients and the medical community were skeptical. He recalled being teased by colleagues during his cardiology training. “Now they all refer (patients) to me,” he said, or call with questions.

Patient attitudes are also changing, he said. Rather than wanting to add another pill, he said, “They want to know what they can do to have an effect on their health.”

Suhar’s decision to go into medicine, and particularly integrative medicine, had much to do with his father, an architect who suffered from a variety of ailments including cancer and diabetes. His father died at 62 during Suhar’s medical residency, and Suhar agonized, wondering why the legion of medications didn’t save his life. “What pill didn’t we give him?” Suhar recalled thinking. “That was the wrong question.”

“I went searching for something else,” he said, and met Dr. Mimi Guarneri, founder of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, who became his mentor. Suhar took over as director of the center when Guarneri left earlier this year.

Suhar said scientific evidence exists to demonstrate the benefits of alternative therapies. One example was a research project involving two groups of Camp Pendleton Marines suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. One group of Marines received healing touch treatment, while another did not. The study found that Marines who received the treatment saw a “dramatic” reduction in symptoms, Suhar said.

Another study in Singapore showed that participation in yoga reduced the incidence of atrial fibrillation, or irregular heartbeat, in a group of patients, he said.

Along with its proven health benefits, the integrative approach to medicine — with its emphasis on disease prevention — will fit in well with Obamacare, the new health legislation that will be phased in this year and in 2014, Suhar said. The new healthcare rules give healthcare providers financial incentives to keep patients healthy and out of the hospital, he said.

The Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine is on North Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla, next to Scripps Green Hospital. The center includes specialists in cancer and pain treatment, fatigue and cardiology, said Suhar, and offers instruction in nutrition, cooking, fitness and other areas.

Suhar said he personally follows the tenets of integrative medicine by exercising regularly, including resistance and cardio training. He loves hiking, and spending time with his family, including wife Carla, an executive with Hewlett Packard, and the couple’s three children: Tyler, 5, Casey, 3, and Haley, 2.

A former Boy Scout who reached the rank of Eagle, Suhar said he hopes his children will also be interested in scouting.

He is also passionate about his work, and the integrative approach to medicine. “I love what I do, it’s great coming to work,” he said. “One of my goals is to spread integrative medicine practices and thoughts broadly throughout Scripps.”