What is a Naturopathic Doctor? What Should You Look For?

By Dr. Sarah Bennett, NMD / August 6, 2019

Naturopathic Doctor

Naturopathic doctors have been growing in popularity over the years, and with that comes a lot of questions about what they are and what they do.

This is a pretty open-ended question since “naturopathic doctor” and “naturopathic medicine” can refer to a pretty fair range of qualities, qualifications and treatments. Generally, though, a thorough understanding of the subject matter will make it much easier to discern which practices are right for you and which you may want to avoid instead.

To give you some answers and help better illustrate what naturopathic doctors do, here is the ultimate guide to walk you through it!

What is Naturopathic Medicine?

While naturopathic medicine can relate to a lot of different treatments and practices, the overall concept is natural medicine that will work with your body’s natural healing process rather than in opposition to how it is functioning.

This can be used for a variety of different things, including cosmetic treatments in med spas or more health-related concerns for which patients are seeking natural solutions.

Naturopathic physicians will see and treat patients with almost any and everything since this is such a broad field with so much use and potential. They will often be sought out by patients with GI disorders, uncontrolled allergies and asthma, bioidentical hormone replacement therapy needs, nutritional counseling for weight loss and diabetes, pain, hypothyroidism and more.

This provides a true variety in patient concerns. Many patients will have a laundry list of medications and desperately want to be weaned off as many as possible. The majority are simply looking for an alternative to the conventional medical system.

While more traditional practices are absolutely valuable and helpful, the main goal of naturopathic medicine is to simply give an alternative for patients who are looking for a solution or lifestyle that better fits their needs.

What are Some Common Misconceptions?

Some Common Misconceptions

Since naturopathic medicine covers such a broad scope of alternative medicine, it’s common to also have misinformation or misconceptions floating around.

One common misconception about naturopathic medicine is that it is “quackery” involving magical or mystical practices that are not based in science, a belief largely grounded in the unlicensed naturopaths (UnDs) who market themselves as naturopathic doctors.

Oftentimes, unlicensed naturopaths may practice modalities that actually aren’t based in science, offering services that are considered more of an energy healing. This attitude has caused many patients harms through uninformed recommendations and it has caused qualified naturopathic doctors to be lumped in with their image.

Another common misconception made by both patients and other types of physicians is that the NMD curriculum is not as intense or rigorous as other medical programs.

This misconception is plainly false. NMDs complete just as many credits as MDs (if not more). We’ll go more in depth about how naturopathic doctors are qualified shortly, but the main takeaway here is that while their medicine and practice is founded in different technique and style, naturopathic doctors are just as thoroughly trained and educated as other doctors.

Another misconception is that naturopathic is synonymous with homeopathic since there are some overlaps that can make them easy to conflate without enough information.

A homeopath solely practice homeopathy and often must train for 7+ years to become an expert in this field alone. Homeopathy is included in naturopathic medical schools’ curriculum, but it isn’t the primary or sole focus.

Lastly, many people believe that naturopathic physicians cannot or do not prescribe medication since this seems to be more rooted in traditional medical practices.

One of the great things about naturopathic medicine is that the education surrounding the practice is well-rounded and doctors can in fact prescribe medication if it is deemed necessary (which, sometimes, it simply is).

How are Naturopathic Doctors Qualified?

Naturopathic Doctors

When you look past the unlicensed naturopaths, you will see that there are actually a number of requirements for naturopathic doctors to be considered qualified.

Naturopathic medical doctors must attend a 4-year accredited naturopathic medical school which is a postgraduate education. Application to the program requires a minimum GPA of 3.0 and specific prerequisite courses.

Naturopathic medical school curriculum requires completion of courses in all of the same biomedical sciences required in traditional medical school. In addition, during the first two years, NMD students are required to complete as many credits as MD students (if not more).

Examples of subjects that must be studied and passed include anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and other standard courses expected of medical students.

During the third and fourth year, both NMD and MD curriculums focus on applying medical knowledge. This is also when the curriculums begin to differ. At this time, MD students participate in clinic clerkships focusing on observation of each clinical speciality while NMD students participate in hands-on clinical rotations with diverse patient groups.

In addition, NMD students will continue course work in each medical specialty (endocrinology, cardiology, pulmonology, etc.).

Other differences include things like:

  • Postgraduate MD programs require residency placement while NMD programs offer additional training via residency programs
  • NMD students take an additional course load in acupuncture, homeopathy, traditional chinese medicine, hydrotherapy manipulation, nutritional science and botanical medicine
  • NMD students take two sets of NPLEX board exams, the first taken after the second year and being over the medical sciences and the second taken after graduation and covering all of the previously mentioned additional courses (botanical medicine, homeopathy, etc.)

There are also plenty of other differences between MD and NMD programs (e.g. postgraduate MD programs require residency placement while NMD programs offer additional training via residency programs), but both are equally valid and intensely qualified.

Lastly, it is important to note that in terms of licensing, naturopathic physicians are licensed in 22 states and are pushing for national licensure. Currently, scope of practice is different between states in an effort to push this national licensure.

What Makes Naturopathic Doctors Stand Out?

Now that we’ve established a lot of the main differences between naturopathic doctors and other physicians in terms of qualifications, it’s important to touch upon what it is that really makes naturopathic doctors stand out.

Naturopathic medical doctors have a well-rounded education that provides many tools that they can use. This education allows them to prescribe medication while also understanding the importance and the impact of diet and lifestyle.

These naturopathic medical doctors pride themselves on treating the root cause of problems, something that takes an in-depth understanding of blood chemistry values.

Naturopathic physicians are often known to run more labs than conventional doctors because naturopathic medicine treats problems and concerns based on a stricter lab reference range known as the optimal range.

This enables doctors to fine tune patient care, optimizing results and efficacy. Labs are generally run more frequently, which provides data to determine the efficacy of treatment in a timely manner.

This optimal range is based on research showing improvement not only in symptoms but in disease prevention in the first place. Due to a deeper understanding of lab value implications, naturopathic doctors excel at patient education and empowerment.

Best of all, naturopathic physicians have such a wide range of knowledge at their disposal that they are some of the best at getting to the root of a problem and knowing either how to address it themselves or exactly where the patient should be directed for treatment.

Simply booking a consultation with a naturopathic physician will give you access to a plethora of information that can be explained and simplified in a way that puts you on board with your own treatment, no matter what health or body concerns you may have.

What Red Flags Should You Avoid?

Though we’ve established that there are many wonderful things about naturopathic doctors that really give them an edge in being able to help you live your best life, there are also some red flags you should look out for to make sure you’re genuinely getting the best naturopathic care available.

As mentioned earlier, always beware of “UnDs” or unlicensed naturopaths. Many unlicensed practitioners call themselves naturopathic doctors simply because of their nature-based approach to medicine, regardless of whether they have attended an accredited 4-year medical school.

Many unlicensed schools sell below-standard courses to provide a certificate in nutrition and/or natural medicine as well, so pay close attention to a physician’s credentials. Once they attend these courses they will often market themselves as naturopathic doctors even though this is misleading and dangerous.

Many people have been ripped off by being put on inappropriate or ineffective medications, put on dangerous diet plans without proper guidance and more. Always feel comfortable asking where someone received their education because true naturopathic physicians will be more than happy to proudly tell you.

In addition, be wary of clinics that rely on residents to function. This typically implies that the practice will not retain doctors that can grow to know you and your case.

It’s important to build these relationships so that they can develop a personal understanding of your history and situation. Plus, it’s a bad sign if there is a constant rotation of doctors at any venture since it implies underlying reasons that would push physicians to find work at other ventures.

Lastly, always be aware that the practice of naturopathic medicine is very diverse and many ventures will offer different solutions and services. Oftentimes, physicians will specialize in one area which many dictate how they practice and what they treat.

For example, focus areas may include nature cure (the practice of changing diet and lifestyle to address health concerns), homeopathy, regenerative injection therapy (which includes several types of intramuscular and intra-articular injections to stimulate your body’s own healing mechanisms), bioidentical hormone replacement therapy, medical aesthetics (like Botox), primary care and more.

It is always important to understand what type of naturopathic doctor you are looking for so you can do thorough research and find someone that perfectly suits your needs.

How I Personally Practice Naturopathic Medicine

On that note, I’d like to wrap things up by sharing how I personally practice naturopathic medicine so that you can get a general idea of where I’m coming from.

During my residency, I became proficient in primary care, bioidentical hormone replacement therapy and regenerative injection therapy. I have continued my training in bioidentical hormone replacement therapy while practicing at Protea Life Medical Center with Dr. Bendan McCarthy.

I have obtained additional certified training in regenerative injection therapy and medical aesthetics procedures from Dr. Vance Inouye, NMD, and National Laser Institute respectively.

I am now focusing on anti-aging treatments, including bioidentical hormone replacement, medical aesthetics, regenerative medicine and weight loss tools. All treatment plans are developed based on comprehensive lab work and a detailed clinical history. These individualized treatment plans are based on the latest research and efficacy is evaluated by consistent lab work.

Ultimately, I aim to be here for you and give you the best treatment options available so that you can live your best and most confident life regardless of age, insecurities or other stubborn concerns that have been plaguing your mind.

In Summary

Naturopathic doctors are here to help in alternative ways that many other medical professionals may not, though any licensed, educated and qualified doctor will be able to offer valid and helpful solutions.

If you are looking for treatments that can help your body function in a more effective way (hormone therapy, weight loss programs, etc.), naturopathic doctors are a great way to go and they have plenty of knowledge and advice to offer you so that you can find the best provider and service for your circumstances.

Of course, the most important thing about alternative practices that you may be less familiar with is a health dialogue, so definitely feel free to ask me any questions you may have and I’ll do my best to help you feel more solid and comfortable in your understanding.

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