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Home  > Article

Naturopathy: An Alternative Medical Career

By Aimee Whitenack

Business is booming for those in alternative medicine, and naturopaths are among the beneficiaries of our new fascination with herbal medicine, natural childbirth, and massage therapy. So is this "hippie medicine"? Who are these naturopathic doctors?

Graduates of accredited naturopathic medical colleges are required to have more hours of study in basic sciences and clinical sciences than graduates of Yale or Stanford medical schools.

Hillary Fredrickson, 25, was paying her dues on the road to medical school, working in a psychiatric hospital, when she realized that becoming a medical doctor might not meet her calling. She felt that the doctors she worked with were not getting to the root of the patients' problems -- they weren't treating the whole person. That's when she learned about naturopathy, and enrolled in the John Bastyr College of Naturopathic Medicine.

"People's initial reaction is often, 'What the heck are you doing? And why? Because you weren't smart enough to get into regular medical school?' That's a little bit frustrating, but I find that if I talk to people for 10 minutes about it, they pretty much see where I'm coming from," she says. "We just need to raise consciousness."

Worldwide, only 10 to 30 percent of health care is delivered by conventional (i.e., biomedical) practitioners. The majority of the world (an estimated 70 to 90 percent, according to "Adapted from Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons") is treated by alternative forms of medicine, ranging from self-care based on folk principles to naturopathy. And although naturopathic medicine is becoming increasingly popular with patients, naturopathic doctors are yet to receive our full esteem.

A different medical philosophy
Naturopathic medicine differs from conventional medicine mainly in its philosophy. While medical doctors (M.D.s) treat and relieve a patient's symptoms, naturopathic doctors (N.D.s) try to discover the cause of the symptoms by taking into account the physical, mental, emotional, genetic, environmental, and social factors of an individual's health. Naturopathic doctors then try to support the natural healing potential of the human body using techniques like nutrition, natural hygiene, botanical medicine, homeopathy, counseling, and spirituality.

An N.D. treating you for high blood pressure, for example, would spend at least two hours learning about your health history and lifestyle (including your love life and job satisfaction) before making any recommendations. Your treatment might include reforming your diet (i.e., herbal tea instead of coffee), detoxification (short fasts that allow your body to repair itself), breathing and relaxation techniques that reduce stress, and acupuncture to help you kick your smoking habit.

Presently, about 65 health insurance plans across the country cover some naturopathic treatments. In Washington, 90 percent of state residents have naturopathic coverage. This is, in part, because Washington has "integrated care," meaning naturopathic medicine is regularly used in conjunction with conventional medicine. Fredrickson explains integrated care by using the example of a cancer patient who is opposed to chemotherapy, but who is a perfect candidate for the treatment. "I'd tell this patient I was going to walk her through the chemo, boost her immune system, and really work on preventing the radiation and the chemo from destroying other critical tissues in her body," says Fredrickson. When Fredrickson finishes her training she plans to set up her own integrated care practice with an M.D., an N.D., an acupuncturist, and perhaps a massage therapist.

Pseudo-scientific medicine?
Despite the fact that more and more of us are attracted to natural health and herbal remedies (who doesn't use echinacea when they feel the first sniffles of a cold?), many call naturopathy pseudo-scientific medicine. Dr. Stephen Barrett, chairman of Quackwatch, Inc., a nonprofit corporation whose purpose is to combat health-related frauds and myths, insists that "the scope and quality of naturopathic education do not prepare the practitioner to make an adequate diagnosis and provide appropriate treatment."

Fredrickson contends that naturopathic doctors are sometimes viewed as unqualified or foolish because, indeed, some N.D.s are. The practice of naturopathic medicine is currently licensed in 11 states, but in states that aren't licensed, anyone can call themselves an N.D., and an uneducated population doesn't know the difference.

Many naturopathic doctors in unlicensed states have degrees from a mail-order correspondence school (such as Clayton College), but there is a major difference between these programs and the four- or five-year programs offered by accredited naturopathic medical colleges. "I'm going to a five-year medical program, learning anatomy on a cadaver, learning really intense science and integrating with a clinic, and becoming a primary care physician." In fact, graduates of accredited naturopathic colleges are required to have more hours of study in basic sciences and clinical sciences than graduates of Yale or Stanford medical schools.

Competitive admissions
In order to attend one of the four accredited naturopathic medical colleges (The National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oreg; the John Bastyr College of Naturopathic Medicine in Seattle, Wash; The Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Phoenix, Ariz; and University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine in Bridgeport, Conn.), every student needs to have fulfilled their premed requirements. Fredrickson says that each year admission is becoming more competitive. (Her class at Bastyr consists of 160 students the biggest in the school's history out of 900 applicants.)

Fredrickson's fellow students are a wide variety of ages, races, and nationalities. There are six medical doctors in the class, and the majority of people have reportedly been wavering about whether they should go to conventional or naturopathic medical school. "Most people stumbled upon something that didn't work for them in the medical system that opened up their eyes, or some people were sick and got cured with naturopathy, and then some people grew up with naturopathic doctors and don't know the difference," she says.

Fredrickson recommends naturopathic medical school for someone who knows he wants to be a doctor and to care for people, but who looks at the conventional model and doesn't feel like he's fitting in. Right now, she's not too worried about image or prestige because she's confident in both her decision and her profession. "A lot of people particularly people older than me told me I should become a medical doctor in order to be 'legitimate,' and then I should study naturopathic medicine," says Fredrickson. "Why do I need to do a rotation in E.R. when I don't want to cut people up? This medicine speaks for itself because it heals people it is legitimate."

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