After Dr. Julio Diaz was arrested earlier this year for allegedly overprescribing prescription drugs, hundreds of the Santa Barbara family-practice physician’s patients were left without a doctor.
One physician who has helped assume care of two dozen of Diaz’s patients is Dr. Scott Saunders, medical director of the Integrative Medical Center of Santa Barbara at 601 E. Arrellaga St.
Saunders’ practice focuses on integrative medicine, which combines conventional Western medicine with other types of alternative treatments when beneficial to the patient.
Noozhawk sat down with Saunders last week at his office to talk about his approach with these new patients.
Immediately after Diaz’s arrest on federal drug charges Jan. 4, Saunders said he received a call from a director of a local nursing home. Diaz had been seeing 24 of the people who lived in the facility, and they were now without care.
Could Saunders take on the caseload, the director asked. He agreed, and he has been seeing those patients for more than six months now.
Formerly a medical director of a nursing home, Saunders began to observe among Diaz’s patients familiar patterns that are common in the long-term care facilities.
Patients will often be falsely diagnosed with conditions so they can be put on medications that will make care easier, Saunders explained. He said he began looking through the lists of medications prescribed to each patient.
Saunders said he believes one former Diaz patient, who could be disruptive, was falsely diagnosed with schizophrenia so she could be prescribed heavy doses of tranquilizers. The woman also had diabetes and had gained 60 pounds as a result of not being able to get out of bed, he said.
“She hurt all the time,” he said. “She was miserable.”
Saunders put her on a special diet to lose weight.
When the woman was taken off the meds, her family became angry and moved her to another nursing home, Saunders said. But he said the woman wanted to manage her own care so she returned to the first facility and was brought back under Saunders’ care.
He says the patient has now lost the extra weight and is able to get around with the aid of a walker. She even has a job at the facility’s beauty salon, he said.
Another former Diaz patient, a 55-year-old man, told Saunders that Diaz had saved his life.
Diaz had prescribed the man large amounts of Percocet for intense back pain, and Saunders said Diaz and the patient later discovered that the man had a tumor around his spine.
Saunders divides those in the medical profession into two groups: “lumpers” who gather all the patient’s symptoms and look for any corellations, and “splitters” who look at a person’s separate illnesses and try to medicate for each one.
“Lumpers will put all of those symptoms into one constellation,” he said. “It’s not about the symptoms, it’s about the “why?”
Like other physicians interviewed by Noozhawk as part of its reporting on Diaz, Saunders expressed concern about the way the medical establishment has been set up to look only at acute care of patients, and not at underlying and more chronic symptoms.
In California, Saunders said, doctors are required to take classes on pain medications, and also to do all they can to alleviate a patient’s pain.
Saunders said he thinks Diaz did “everything by the book,” resulting in a lack of action from the Medical Board of California. But many family members of Diaz’s patients, as well as doctors from Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, complained to the board about his prescribing habits — to no avail.
While Diaz’s case inches toward trial, Saunders has succeeded in taking the opposite approach.
Saunders said he’s been able to take patients who had been on 20 medications and winnow them down to three or four.
Taking medications like an osteoporosis medication that is highly toxic to the body and just trading it for vitamin D could be helpful, he said.
“You can get people off medications and do it in a different way,” he said.
Patients who have come in with diabetes, cholesterol and other conditions have experienced relief through his approach, he said. Although it’s a not a complete cure, “we really put them in remission,” he exclaimed.