What does a Naturopathic Physician do?

What is a Naturopathic Physician?

A Naturopathic Physician is a doctor who blends modern scientific medical practice and knowledge with natural and traditional forms of medical treatment. The practice is sometimes referred to complementary medicine or naturopathy. It has a long history, beginning with some of the earliest doctors who used botanical medicine, herbs and natural treatments. In the late 19th century the tradition became more formalized with the opening of the American School of Naturopathy.

With increased globalization came greater awareness of alternative and Eastern-style medicine. The established medical community viewed many of these treatments with suspicion initially, and for a time naturopaths were seen as dangerous quacks. Laws were even passed preventing their practice in many places. As modern medicine and scientific knowledge increased, however, physicians began to realize the value and credibility of the naturopathic approach, and natural medicine has been incorporated into conventional medical practice. Over the past few decades naturopathy is again evolving into its own, distinct form of medical practice. Although acceptance is growing, resistance among some members of the traditional medical community still prevails. Evidence-based research is being conducted in an effort to validate herbal remedies and alternative medicine and enhance the credibility of naturopathic practices.

What does a Naturopathic Physician do?

The Naturopathic Physician is a primary health care provider of naturopathic medicine. He or she uses complementary and alternative therapies along with mainstream medical practice, with the goal of treating underlying causes of disease while stimulating the body's own healing abilities. Natural remedies are generally chosen in favor of pharmaceuticals, but a holistic approach is used and many physicians advocate conventional treatments alongside naturopathic ones.

Some of the key philosophies of naturopathy include:

  • the idea that patients should take individual responsibility for their own health

  • a holistic focus on how the structural and physiological, psychological, social, and spiritual, and environmental and lifestyle factors contribute to overall health

  • diagnosing from a naturalistic perspective, viewing disease as being caused by physiological imbalance, lifestyle deficiencies, stress, or environmental influences

  • treatment with a wide range of natural therapies

  • an emphasis on disease prevention and promotion of good heath

Some of the underlying causes of disease that are considered include exposure to chemicals or toxic substances; impurities of air, water or food; physical and psychological stress; poor nutrition; and lifestyle factors. The Naturopathic Physician designs an individualized treatment plan and prescribes natural treatments such as:

  • homeopathic or botanical medicine

  • acupuncture and other oriental remedies

  • lifestyle counseling

  • massage therapy, hydrotherapy, and other physical activities

  • nutrition and diet

A Naturopathic Physician will refer patients to other practitioners if treatment is outside the naturopathic scope of practice.

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How to become a Naturopathic Physician

There are two main ways to become a Naturopathic Physician. First is by becoming a Medical Doctor and then taking up the naturopathy specialty. In Canada and the U.S. this begins with pre-med university studies, usually a four-year Bachelor degree. Next is a three- or four-year Medical Doctor degree, followed by post-graduate specialty training. Up to four years of hospital residency is also required. Getting accepted into most MD programs is a very competitive process, and students must meet certain criteria, including high grade averages.

The second way is to become an accredited Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, or ND. In many states in the U.S. and in most of Canada this is a specialized degree granted by an accredited medical school. Although there are some variances in admittance criteria, most programs require a bachelor degree with pre-med sciences, with competitive average marks in biochemistry, physiology, organic and general chemistry, biology, psychology, and the humanities. The ND programs are generally four years long, and many naturopathic doctors take additional post-graduate training in specific treatments, such as chelation therapy or acupuncture. In the U.K. a two-year post-graduate Naturopathic Diploma can be earned by a healthcare professional such as a medical doctor or nurse, and registration is required for accreditation. Many eastern countries, for example, India, also offer specific university training in naturopathic medicine.

However, in most jurisdictions, including much of the U.S., Australia, and in several Canadian provinces, the Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine is not a protected term and can be used by almost anyone, regardless of educational level. Regulations regarding whether the term "doctor" can be used also vary.

In locations where the ND designation is regulated, Naturopathic Physicians must pass standardized licensing exams and register, and complete at least two years of clinical practice.

Among personal criteria and other skills that are required:

  • understanding of physical anatomy

  • ability to develop a healthy rapport with patients and earn their trust

  • good communication and listening skills

  • emotional stability and maturity

  • good observation skills

  • open mind and acceptance of alternative viewpoints and approaches

What is the workplace of a Naturopathic Physician like?

Many naturopathic physicians are self-employed in private practice and set their own schedules and hours. These often include evenings and weekends to accommodate patients. Others join private clinics with other health care practitioners, and spend much of the day examining and treating patients. Completing paperwork and patient documentation is also part of the work day. Some find employment in research and development, marketing, teaching and consulting.

A naturopathic practice takes time to build, and achieving success depends on many factors, including individual talent, experience and initiative.