Many of my previous articles have referred to naturopathic doctors and naturopathic treatment methods and therapies, like detox and probiotics. However, it's not often clear what exactly constitutes naturopathic medicine and what distinguishes naturopathic doctors from other health practitioners.
While the naturopathic approach recognizes, and in some cases employs, modern surgical and pharmacological approaches to managing disease, we feel the ultimate goal of medicine should be a vibrantly healthy population with little need for doctors and hospitals. What's needed for us to get there isn't more drug research and surgical techniques, but rather a shift in the underlying philosophy by which these routes are engaged.
Naturopathic Medicine Compared to Conventional Medicine
Most people have a sense naturopathic doctors utilize nutrition, exercise, herbs, supplements and lifestyle changes in order to improve health. What often isn't immediately apparent is naturopathic doctors are also trained in conventional (Western) medicine including the basic sciences, lab testing, diagnostic imaging, minor surgery and pharmacology. Depending on their individual practice style, an office visit with a naturopath can look either very similar, or quite different, than an MD or DO.
Naturopathic medicine is guided by six philosophical principles which determine our clinical decision-making process:
First Do No Harm
As scientific research into nutrition, exercise, herbs and supplements continues to evolve, we have become empowered with many effective tools to improve health that don't carry the same level of risks as drugs and surgical methods. While naturopathic doctors realize the value of drugs and surgery, we feel it's our professional duty to recommend the most harmless methods first before bringing out the big guns.
Healing Power of Nature
Naturopathic doctors recognize an innate capacity of the body to heal and regenerate itself, given the right resources and environment. As such, we view ourselves as facilitators of this natural process, rather than agents of cure.
Identify the Cause
Naturopathic doctors avoid covering up symptoms of an illness, like pain, and instead work to identify and treat the root cause of an illness so the symptoms can be alleviated long term.
Treat the Whole Person
A human being isn't simply a bag of chemicals, but a person with a mind, emotions, spiritual beliefs, friends, family and environmental factors which all impact their health. Rather than recommend the same remedy to all patients with the same symptoms, naturopathic doctors use a holistic and comprehensive approach to patient care, tailoring treatment strategies to each patient’s individual makeup.
The English word "doctor" comes from the Latin word "docere" which means "to teach." In order to achieve long-term health, naturopathic doctors believe it's essential to educate our patients on how the body works and the reasons why we are choosing a particular course of action. Appointments can be much longer because naturopathic doctors view healing as a co-creation with our patients, and encourage them to be engaged in the decision-making process.
Prevention is the Best Cure
Naturopathic medicine suggests instead of waiting for an illness to arise, you should improve and optimize patient health continually to reduce the chances of an intervention in the future.
Both naturopathic and conventional medicine are successful at treating illness and saving lives. Naturopathic medicine is superb in treating chronic conditions or as a form of preventive care, while conventional medicine is exceptional for acute disease and emergency situations. As a result, patients don’t have to choose one or the other. In order to benefit from the best of both worlds, seek out practitioners who are open and willing to work with the "other side," or, even better, who refuse to take sides.
When to See a Naturopathic Doctor
Patients come to see naturopathic doctors for many reasons, but there are trends. First, a patient may choose a naturopathic doctor as their primary care physician because naturopathic doctors are trained to identify when a referral to a specialist is necessary and are well-equipped to work with patients to maintain optimal health. Next, patients looking for an open, personal relationship with their physician or those who have exhausted all of the conventional treatment methods seek out naturopathic doctors for new solutions. Finally, patients who've received poor treatment either from an under trained naturopathic doctor, or were the victim of someone claiming to be, come to have their symptoms and treatments reevaluated.
How to Find One
At present, 16 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and five Canadian provinces have laws regulating naturopathic doctors (NDs). In these states and provinces, naturopathic doctors are required to graduate from a four-year, residential naturopathic medical school and pass an extensive postdoctoral board examination (NPLEX) in order to receive a license. Anyone looking for a naturopathic doctor living somewhere that doesn't have such laws should be sure to confirm the physician is a graduate of one of the seven programs within the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Colleges (aanmc.org).
What to Expect
At the first visit, a naturopathic doctor will sit down with the patient to openly discuss their health history and any questions or concerns about their health. Honesty can benefit a patient greatly. The first appointment may also include a physical exam and a review of previous lab or imaging results, medications and dietary supplements. A naturopathic doctor will almost invariably discuss diet and nutrition. However, keep in mind that insurance companies are reluctant to cover office visits that exceed a designated time frame with the doctor, so be prepared to pay a consultation fee comparable to any other professional service, such as an attorney or accountant.
Naturopathic medicine can help treat common ailments and illnesses safely and effectively. Don’t be afraid to seek out the opinions and knowledge of a naturopathic doctor to live a full, healthy life.
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