Family Physician Joseph E. Scherger Champions Lifestyle Change

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Joseph E. Scherger, MD, MPH, is a family physician of 40 years and an avid runner who has carried over his passion for fitness and nutrition into treating patients.

He achieved this through moving to practicing functional medicine a decade ago.

According to Scherger, functional medicine “shifts the whole approach [to family medicine], recognizing that people’s chronic diseases, like hypertension and diabetes, are completely reversible, and the reason why is because they’re caused by what we eat and how we live.”

His present-day focus on functional medicine ignites an excitement within him that it unique from the excitement he felt about practicing family medicine earlier in his career.

“Now that I’ve shifted into nutrition and lifestyle, I feel like I’m a healer, you know? I’m not just refilling prescriptions anymore,” he said.

The burden of disease brought about by bad nutrition and our profit-hungry food industry is staggering, explained Scherger, As such, he encourages his patients to adopt lifestyle and nutritional changes that allow the body to become healthy again.

Scherger’s shift into lifestyle-oriented medicine reflects his own experiences with healthy living, and how it has impacted his life.

“I’m 70 years old, and I’m still running, and I feel the same as when I was 40 or 50.” He has completed 40 marathons, ten 50K and five 50-mile ultramarathon trail runs, and, although retired from long-distance running, he is currently training for an upcoming 5K Thanksgiving turkey trot with his 6-year-old grandson. “He loves it. He’s faster than I am, I have trouble keeping up with him,” he confessed.

Earlier Days of Career

“I’ve been very blessed to have a career that kept changing every 5-10 years,” he said. “I’ve been able to evolve in a way of shifting my interests from one area to another,” he said.

Scherger has held many positions in the medical field, from serving in the National Health Service Corps in Dixon, Calif., as a migrant health physician during 1978-1980, to being chair of graduate medical education at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., from 2009 to 2015. In between, he taught at the University of California, Davis, and served as founding dean of the Florida State University College of Medicine.

Originally from Ohio, Scherger was born in 1950 in the small town of Delphos. He graduated from the University of Dayton in 1971 before attending medical school at University of California, Los Angeles, for 4 years. He then completed a family medicine residency and a masters in public health at the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1978.

A resident of the Golden State for 50 years now, Scherger describes himself as a “true Californian.” Currently, he is in practice at Eisenhower Health in La Quinta, Calif., where he is a core faculty member in the family medicine residency program. He is also a physician under the health center’s Primary Care 365 program, which offers patients regular communication with and increased access to their physicians, emphasizing on telemedicine. He also founded Restore Health — Disease Reversal, a wellness center in Indian Wells, Calif., that focuses on improving patients’ health through changes in nutrition and lifestyle.

Within his medical practice, Scherger is seen by colleagues as a doctor who not only advocates for his patients, but also goes above and beyond to solve their problems.

“He’s a leader, an advocate, and he inspires others to do what they do,” said Julia L. Martin, MD, a fellow family medicine practitioner who has been working with Scherger at the Eisenhower Medical Center for the past 5 years. “Being a physician is a very challenging role. You need to be patient and understanding in trying to investigate what the patient wants and work through that to try to find the solution. Scherger is really good at that.”

Inspiration for Writing

Apart from his roles as a physician and faculty member, Scherger is also an author of two books: “40 Years in Family Medicine” (Scotts Valley, Calif.: CreateSpace, 2014) and “Lean and Fit: A Doctor’s Journey to Healthy Nutrition and Greater Wellness” (Scotts Valley, Calif.: CreateSpace, 2015). He admits to not being a naturally gifted writer, and is more intrinsically skilled at speaking. When he was in medical school, however, a mentor told him that the written word is eternal, and this left a deep impression on him.

“When I think of something that’s worth writing about, that I think will be a contribution to my field, I don’t hesitate to begin to write and develop,” said Scherger. ” I’ve done some research that I’m proud of, but most of [my writings] are hopefully thoughtful essays to help move my field along, and it’s enormously satisfying to make these contributions.”

Awards and Other Contributions to Family Medicine

Scherger’s contributions to the field of family medicine have been recognized continuously over his career.

He has served on the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Board of Family Medicine. He is also the recipient of numerous awards, such as being chosen as Family Physician of the Year by the American Academy of Family Physicians and the California Academy of Family Physicians in 1989. From 1988 to 1991, he was a fellow in the Kellogg National Fellowship Program.

While he has managed to reinvent his own practice and medical focus, Scherger is also concerned with the need to remodel the current state of primary care and family medicine. Regarding challenges facing the field, he mentions the burnout faced by many doctors.

Nowadays, the work of family medicine includes much more than those common acute illnesses — it includes preventive medicine, chronic illness management and mental health counseling. “Yet, somehow, the whole economic and schedule model is based on brief visits,” said Scherger. “I think the most common reason that a lot of family doctors are burned out is that they’re expected to see so many people a day, and they know they don’t have enough time to do a really good job.”

He elaborated: “The real challenge now for family practice is to be re-engineered to be for the modern age, and not be still stuck in a ‘make an appointment, come and get it’ model of care, which is outdated. So I’ve been working a long time in trying to reinvent primary care. And, you know, it’s hard to make those changes, and it’s still a work in progress.”

One of the ways Scherger has been working on the primary care model is to help redesign it for the computer age. He started doing telemedicine and online care in 1997, even though other doctors gave him pushback for doing so at the time. Today, in his practice, half of his patients are remote, and under Eisenhower’s Primary Care 365 service, he uses telemedicine to its fullest potential.

Martin calls Scherger an “innovator,” adding: “He really tries to find what works for a solution, in different ways — not just one cookie cutter way.”

Despite nearly 50 years of being a doctor, the profession has not gotten any less rewarding for Scherger, who says he does not intend to retire as long as he is any good at it.

“My mother always said, ‘Joe, your life should be dedicated to making the world a better place.’ I really took that to heart and realized that my greatest joy is to help other people.”

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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