Psychiatrist Chooses Doctor-Patient Relationships

Despite reaching wide audiences through work on Dr. Drew's rehab television shows, John Sharp, MD, finds the one-on-one work he does with patients the most rewarding part of his job.

Do you remember when physicians routinely made house calls? John Sharp, MD, does. In fact, the board certified psychiatrist and best selling author recalls those days fondly.

That’s because Sharp, who comes from a medical family, used to make house calls with his grandfather, an internist, every night after dinner.

“I was around 8- or 9-years old, and I remember something profound about the doctor-patient relationship that I could appreciate even then,” Sharp recalls.

That’s not surprising. When Sharp and his grandfather would reach a patient’s home, a family member would give him a piece of pie in the kitchen while his grandfather would tend to the patient. And while doing so, his grandfather used to whistle.

“At his funeral, many of his patients came up to me and said, ‘When we used to hear Dr. Sharp whistle on his way toward the house, we’d already start to feel better,’” Sharp explains. “I could have gone into any number of specialties in medical school, but I wanted to focus on the doctor-patient relationship. And psychiatry does that.”

Different lenses

Sharp specializes in the integrated psychotherapy and psycho-pharmacologic treatment of attention deficit, mood and anxiety disorders in adolescents and adults. What that means is that Sharp uses principles from different schools of psychotherapy — he fuses them together, so to speak — in order to best understand an individual’s suffering and the best way to treat that individual. He refers to it as “depth psychotherapy.”

One of Sharp’s mentors once told him that there are many different lenses and it’s important to be able to look through them all as a way to see which provides the clearest picture of what a patient is experiencing, and how to proceed with treatment. Sharp says it’s an approach that many psychiatrists no longer practice.

“They do more of a medical overview, a medication treatment, and some kind of supportive treatment for the patient,” Sharp says. “But a lot of the depth therapies are now practiced by psychologists and social workers. To me, being able to do in-depth psychotherapy is part of the core identity of a psychiatrist, and so I like to offer an integrated approach.”

Educating physicians and more

Sharp has become renowned for translating medical advances into clinical practice. He explains that his particular kind of scholarship is being able to educate clinicians — medical students and colleagues — about the advances being made in the field of psychiatry. He sees himself as both a clinician, and an educator.

As such, Sharp maintains an active private practice in Boston and Los Angeles. He is a member of the medical staff at Beth-Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and is also on faculty at Harvard Medical School and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Sharp is also the executive medical director of Bridges to Recovery, a residential center specializing in the treatment of mental health issues.

But he is not content with simply educating members of the medical profession. His first book, The Emotional Calendar (Times Books, 2011), has been translated into four different languages.

“I was struck by how much people are affected by different elements in the seasons of the year,” Sharp says.

Temperature and weather doesn’t just play a role, so do events. For instance, Fall might remind someone of a big promotion, another of a move and a third person of loss. The smell of wet leaves or the crispness of the air during the season could trigger those memories, Sharp says.

“I was struck with how predictably people are affected and how we’re, nonetheless, most often caught kind of off guard by it,” he says. “It struck me that if I could explain clearly how you can take a seasonal approach and figure out what’s affecting you and plan for it — plan for the times that are joyous and also plan around the times that are more of a strain — that you can actually feel more in control and have more fulfilled in your life.”

Reaching the masses

Sharp’s book enabled him to gain access to the media, and he quickly realized that the media — whether on radio or television — was a great opportunity to reach an even wider audience. Shortly thereafter he met David Drew Pinsky — otherwise known as Dr. Drew, host of VH1’s Rehab with Dr. Drew, and Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Sharp was offered the opportunity to join the program, first as the on-call psychiatrist, and most recently as the program’s associate medical director.

Once he satisfied himself with the fact that people in TV production making the show were really not interfering at all with the clinical work; were really just documenting and accurately providing a view of some of the stories that were taking place, he thought it would be a terrific opportunity to show not only what good psychiatry is, but also what it isn’t.

“It’s not scripted, it’s not forced. It really is a documentary for storytelling, which is different than what you typically see in the category of reality TV,” Sharp says. “There are cameras, and people know it’s going to be seen on TV, but otherwise it’s run just like a clinical center would be for residential treatment for drug and alcohol.

“And this year, we’ve been able to gain support from the network for extended aftercare, so that we’re able to continue caring for the patients for months and months after they’re discharged, which is very real. It’s a wonderful opportunity actually,” he adds.

One-on-one

Despite the success at being able to reach a large audience, Sharp still comes back to the one-on-one work he does with patients in his office as what’s most rewarding in his career. Recently, he had a visit from a patient who wanted to update him on her life.

“She’d done some amazing things, and there was still some work that we needed to do,” Sharp says. “But I helped her look at herself in a different way. To work closely with somebody and to help them change in the way they regard themselves and what they’re able to do in the world is amazing. So as much as I want to spread the word and reach a lot of people and help people understand more, I think, ultimately, it’s that one-on-one kind of quiet work that is the most enjoying.”