New docs on the block

Enloe Medical Center hires two new psychiatrists who specialize in addiction and cancer psychiatry

Doctors Scott Nichols and Asad Amir at Enloe Behavioral Health.

Doctors Scott Nichols and Asad Amir at Enloe Behavioral Health.

photo by kyle emery

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Enloe Behavioral Health has entered a new era. The inpatient mental-health ward at Enloe Medical Center has two new psychiatrists, one of whom became the department’s medical director after Labor Day. Both have backgrounds in general psychiatry, but one—Dr. Scott Nichols, the medical director—specializes in treating patients with terminal illnesses and the other—Dr. Asad Amir—specializes in treating patients with alcohol and drug addictions.

“I think the future is really bright with these two fellows,” said Dr. Samuel Brown, who had been serving as medical director for Behavioral Health as well as for Palliative Care, where he’s now focusing his efforts. “The setting is right here for us to develop a state-of-the-art psychiatric program. I think these two guys have the youth and energy to do that. We’re pretty excited about it.”

So are the new doctors. Both chose Chico because of family ties but also because of distinct professional opportunities.

“After my interview,” Amir wrote in an email, “I was impressed by the structure of the inpatient program and excellent teamwork at Enloe Medical Center.” Nichols, in a phone interview, said he, too, likes the Behavioral Health team, including his new colleague.

“We are really compatible,” Nichols explained. “I don’t think we’re of similar personality but we really enjoy working together and have the same ideas of how to move things forward.

“Enloe really did a good job choosing two people at the same time who are really compatible, and we’re both grateful for that.”

Nichols and Amir both see patients in the hospital only; as of now, they are not seeing patients who aren’t admitted to a ward. The nature of Nichols’ specialty means he is available for consultations with other physicians treating terminal patients, as his psychiatric care can come in tandem with medical treatments.

Still, general psychiatry is keeping both doctors busy. “There’s a big need in this area,” Nichols said, “probably enough for more than two of us.”

Amir—whose aunt and cousins live in Chico—earned his medical degree at Dow Medical College in Karachi, Pakistan. He came to the United States for his postgraduate training, which he completed in New Jersey at the Bergen Regional Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry in 2011.

“I always believed that psychiatry was the field of medicine which would give me the best opportunity to understand the patient better and hence provide a more comprehensive form of treatment,” Amir said. “This stems from the fact that in this field, besides prescribing medications, one has to fully understand all the psychosocial issues of the patient which play a role in the behavior manifestations.

“My interest further grew when I completed an externship in psychiatry, which provided me with the opportunity to work with a treatment team to provide patient care. Further, I realized that I had a particular skill and patience to handle patients with behavioral issues.”

During his residency, a rotation in addiction medicine prompted him to specialize. “I realized that there is a lot of potential for this group of patients to improve in their clinical presentation if the drug and alcohol issues are addressed appropriately.”

Amir completed a fellowship in addiction psychiatry at the Bronx Lebanon Hospital in New York.

“There is a strong correlation between psychiatry and addiction medicine,” he said. “Drug abuse has become very rampant in this day and age. A lot of patients have co-morbid drug/alcohol addictions and behavioral disturbances.

“It is, thus, imperative for the psychiatrist to understand and treat the myriad psychiatric issues caused by drugs of abuse. It is also important to understand how mental issues lead to drug abuse and dependence, and vice versa.”

Amir’s goal isn’t to “cure” patients of their addictions. Rather, he said, “the effort of every addiction psychiatrist is to treat and manage addiction issues in patients, both in the short and long term, and to provide education and means to achieve abstinence.”

Nichols took a different path to becoming a psychiatrist. A graduate of the Stanford University School of Medicine, he originally intended to be an oncologist—a physician who specializes in cancer treatment.

While training in that field, he said, “I realized I had a very significant interest in the type of crisis that a cancer diagnosis and treatment can cause in people’s lives.” He wasn’t aware there was a small subset of psychiatrists with the same focus of thought.

Those psychiatrists, as it turns out, practice psychosomatic medicine. Nichols acknowledged the name can be confusing, since most people think of psychosomatic as describing an illness whose physical symptoms stem from a mental condition. That’s why he prefers to call his specialty either consult-liaison psychiatry or cancer psychiatry.

In any case, he completed his psychosomatic-medicine training at New York’s Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center this June. He looked at jobs in major medical centers and at universities, but his hometown beckoned.

“For someone of my training, coming to a place like Chico is rare,” Nichols said. “But as I learned Enloe was looking for a new psychiatrist, I saw an opportunity to really make a difference here for the next decade.

“If I stayed at Sloan-Kettering, in 10 years it would be what it is now, the best cancer hospital in the world. Here, it seemed like a great challenge for me.”

Having family in town is “definitely a double bonus,” he added. “Growing up in Chico, I also had a disposition for coming here, and it was an easy place to commit to.”

Now he, like Amir, looks forward to helping fellow North State residents.

“One of the things we think about here,” Nichols said, “is the criteria that the insurance companies and people have before being admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit are pretty strict. My hope is we can get the word out there [that] we’re here and available, and our hope is people would come here or be referred here before things are too dire.”

Nichols used the analogy of “chest pain before a full-blown heart attack. When people are having trouble managing their lives, or doing so with great effort, that would be a better time to seek help.”