Q&A with SCU 2019 Commencement Speaker

Dr. Mimi Guarneri, Cardiologist
Founder of Pacific Pearl La Jolla and the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine

Dr. Mimi Guarneri got her start as an interventional cardiologist in 1994, placing more than 700 stents each year at Scripps Clinic in San Diego. Her medical training taught her to deal with acute-care problems, but didn’t leave much time to treat the whole person. Deep down, she felt that more could be done to improve patient health.

Coincidentally, a lifestyle change program to reverse heart disease was being led nearby by Dr. Dean Ornish. In between stent procedures, Dr. Guarneri visited Dr. Ornish and his team to learn more. She then embarked on a research project, serving as a principal investigator in the Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease. She studied patients who didn’t qualify for stents because they were too sick. Although no procedures could be performed on these patients, suggestions were made about other ways to improve health: vegetarian diets, yoga, acupuncture, meditation, and exercise, for example.

It soon became clear that lives were being radically transformed through these recommendations. Patients had more energy and lost weight. Their relationships were less stressed. There was a 91% decrease in chest pain. Cholesterol and triglyceride levels went down. Many times, coronary disease was reversed.

These results inspired Dr. Guarneri to look at medicine through a different lens. Using research data, she made a proposal to the Scripps Center for a groundbreaking lifestyle change program of its own. The outcome was a success: the opening of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in 1999. Today, the Center combines state-of-the-art cardiac imaging technology with lifestyle change programs to prevent, diagnose, and treat cardiovascular disease in 2,500+ patients each month.

As she prepares to speak at the SCU Spring 2019 Commencement, we spoke with Dr. Guarneri to learn more about her background, passion, and dedication to integrative health.

Q: After the success of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, what initiatives are you focused on as you continue to deliver the message about integrative health?
A: Most professionals are trained through a conventional medicine funnel and never educated about Traditional Chinese, naturopathic, osteopathic, or Ayurvedic medicine.

I founded the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine (AIHM) in 2014 to transform how clinicians are trained. Why isn’t everyone in healthcare learning together? Once you start to learn together, titles and silos are naturally broken down. The Academy offers inter-professional education through fellowship, online learning, and conferences and summits. We bring clinicians of all types together who believe in one philosophy: prevention is the best intervention.

The AIHM administration office is housed within the Pacific Pearl La Jolla wellness center, which I also founded. When you have an appointment here, you’re in the room with a seasoned naturopathic doctor and an MD. If you have muscular or skeletal issues, there’s an osteopathic physician onsite. We have Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, healing touch, and hypnosis practitioners. We treat the whole person.

People from virtually all over the world are seeking something different. My goal was to create the go-to center. When people want integrative health and medicine, I want them to come to us.

Q: Is healthcare finally starting to shift in the direction of integrative health?
A: I’m pro-Western medicine. There’s a time and place for everything. But I’ve been through many years of criticism for getting back to basics like clean air and water, nutrition, proper food and micronutrients, and good sleep. We need to take a root-cause approach to treat underlying problems. What’s causing your arthritis? What’s the cause of your depression? We need a new model of care, and it’s a big ship to turn around. Good healthcare involves a multi-disciplinary chain and a team-based approach.

There are 70+ medical schools that offer integrative medicine classes, which is a huge step. When we started this work in 1996, there were zero. The cadence began to change in the late ’90s. During that time, Dr. David Eisenberg and his associates published the Unconventional Medicine in the United States—Prevalence, Costs, and Patterns of Use study, which indicated that more people went to alternative care providers (629 million) than to primary care physicians (329 million). Western medicine can get you to a certain point, but there’s no path to good health creation. People are saying, “I don’t want back surgery. I want to try a chiropractor or acupuncturist first. When I can’t walk, then I’ll have back surgery.”

Q: How do you deal with people who don’t agree or align with your approach?
A: If we see something we think we can make better, we’re obligated to do our best to do so. That’s how I live my life. You have to have thick skin.

Nurses would walk into my office at the Scripps Center and say, “Want to know what Dr. So-and-So said about you?” They’d relay negativity. But if I jumped at every piece of negativity, I’d be pulled from my mission. You have to put blinders on and keep moving. If someone wants to discuss my approach or see what we’re doing, they’re welcome. The minute you approach someone upfront, they usually back down.

After the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine began, people were saying, “Your lifestyle change program is teaching people meditation, but that doesn’t make us any money.” Maybe it didn’t, but these patients were also having stress tests and echocardiograms done at the hospital. Look at how much we’re referring and the financial impact we’re making. When they said they couldn’t consider that data, I put technology into our own center instead. I brought in a PET-CT scanner and started early detection to detect diseasebefore it occurs.

Q: When you look back at the path you’ve taken and what you’ve accomplished, what are you most proud of?
A: The outcome of my patients. Getting letters from people saying that their lives have been transformed. A patient at Scripps Center once wanted to donate $250,000 because we helped him select his heart surgeon and get a bypass done. Instead, I encouraged him to keep that money and use it to complete the lifestyle change program, spending a year with me doing yoga and exercising. Everyone thought we were crazy when we turned down that money, but it was more important that he experience life-changing medicine for his own health. After his involvement with the program, he gave us $2.5 million.

We can learn to think differently and embrace these approaches. The battle isn’t over. The stronger we get, the more forceful our opposers become. We have to move slowly and steadily. We won’t win by emotion but by perseverance. If we keep showing people what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, we will break through.

Q: What advice do you have for this year’s graduating class?
A: Value relationships and how you make people feel. Keep the reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing at the forefront: Remember your passion and why you chose this profession. Take care of yourself. You can’t heal or take care of anyone if you are not whole. Don’t be afraid to reach out and seek support if you need help. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know everything.

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