David W. Miller, MD, LAc, combines practices of Western and Eastern medicine to help kids heal and thrive
March 24, 2022
It’s safe to say that David W. Miller, MD, LAc is one of the relatively few physicians in this country – if not the world – who is board-certified in both conventional pediatrics and Chinese medicine. He uses the tenets of both in his position as Medical Director of Pediatric Integrative Health at UH Connor Whole Health.
For Dr. Miller, an interest in integrative therapies like yoga and meditation started when he was a teenager. He had a long-standing interest in medicine, but explored other disciplines before committing to medical school. He went to Vassar College for his undergraduate degree in mathematics, took a year off to live in Germany and teach English, followed by a pre-medical program at Bryn Mawr College. Then it was on to Brown University for his medical degree and a pediatrics residency at the University of Chicago.
His first position post-training was as a hospitalist at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. Dr. Miller enjoyed much of that work, but the 24 hours on, 24 hours off schedule was grueling and not sustainable. He saw first-hand how sleep deprivation and disruptions of good life-work balance can be hard on the body and spirit.
Then, in 2000, three blocks from his home in Chicago, a sign went up for another school of medicine - called the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. Dr. Miller decided to pursue another degree there. He connected deeply with the program.
“I jumped in and took some classes and it really grabbed me,” he says. “I was realizing that Chinese medicine held the other big piece that I think I was looking for in medicine, a more holistic approach to health.”
Building on the framework of the biopsychosocial model of medicine taught at Brown University in the 1990s, the Chinese medical model felt familiar and relevant. “To think of it another way, it means you don’t just prescribe a pill – you look at the whole body, mind and spirit of a patient, as well as their lifestyle choices, relationships, health practices, and inspirations,” he says.
This doesn’t mean patients aren’t ever prescribed medicine, but rather, that the first step is looking not only at symptoms in isolation, but at the whole patient – whether an adult or in his case, a child– and his or her nutrition, sleep, and movement, to name just a few aspects of health.
In 2022, this approach is called integrative medicine, and University Hospitals Connor Whole Health has one of the best-known centers in the country offering it. Initially, UH Connor primarily offered services only to adult patients.
Dr. Miller was the ideal choice to add the pediatric component, says Francoise Adan, MD, Chief of University Hospitals Whole Health and the Christopher M. & Sara H. Connor Chair in Integrative Medicine, University Hospitals.
“Dr. Miller is one of the leading authorities in pediatric integrative health and is routinely sought out by industry peers, regulators, and educational institutions for his guidance and expertise on matters related to this emerging, important field,” says Dr. Adan. Dr. Miller is also Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
With his addition two years ago, UH Connor has collaborated with UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital to design a program that delivers evidence-based, whole-person, integrative therapies for children and young adults up to age 26. Naturally, younger children are seen along with one or both parents.
Here’s how Dr. Miller describes the process:
“It really depends on the age group, but you speak to each child in a developmentally appropriate way, and you work to optimize their diet and lifestyle just as you would in adults,” he says. “For treatment, we also use methods such as acupressure, body work, herbal medicine, breathing techniques, and other approaches; the strategies are generally very gentle.
“With some kids we can do acupuncture too, and kids can often handle it better than older people. We work with the families to find a health strategy that feels doable and hopefully one about which they are enthusiastic. And we coordinate care with their existing providers.
One of the biggest things, he says, is helping children to think differently. Many of them deal with anxiety, and Dr. Miller treats them by helping them learn how to contextualize their thoughts, reframe them, and then to harness that energy in a more productive manner.
Normalizing the anxiety, deconstructing their anxiety response with them, changing expectations on how they’re “supposed to feel,” can all help kids master their own emotions. The goal, he says, is for them to be in the driver’s seat of their emotions, and to learn skills that they can use throughout their lives.
He’s seen a broad cross-section of people who have an interest in holistic medicine, either for themselves or their children - patients from all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. “The awareness is pervasive,” he says, and it continues to grow.
Dr. Miller says integrative medicine is especially important in pediatrics. “Because children are so emotionally dynamic and also in need of considerable assistance in regulating their daily routines, we need to be sure all of their basic cornerstones of health are met before concluding a diagnosis or using medications to treat,” he says. “Diet can play a huge role in health, for example, and sometimes correcting diet can fix problems from behavioral issues to eczema to asthma to certainly digestive problems.
“Sleep imbalances can show up as attentional issues and hyperactivity in kids, as well as impaired immunity. Social isolation and fear can emerge as depression and anxiety. Structural imbalances can cause pain syndromes including back pain, headaches, and more.”
Children have an open highway between emotions and their bodies, yet they also lack the experience and development to know how to deal with that information. So exploring their concerns and helping them process emotions and ideas is crucial.
“The great thing is, they’re dynamic and resilient, so when we find the right solution for them, they often get better quickly,” says Dr. Miller. Kids often respond to simple tools like breathing techniques, picture charts, musical interventions, art, time in nature, and massage, so starting with these can be both clinically effective and cost-effective.
Dr. Miller says working with families to optimize their children’s health is extremely gratifying.
“It’s particularly energizing when the whole family works together to become a healthier unit, and we get to see the strengthened relationships that emerge from the care,” he says. “Families want to know that whatever medical path they’re taking, that path is as natural as possible, as empowering as possible, but also as effective as possible.
“Synthesizing the options and opportunities offered by both modern medicine and more ancient health systems makes this practice exciting, and it offers solutions that never cease to be amazing.”