According to U.S. Senate resolution 221, this week (October 7 through 13) is Naturopathic Medicine Week. This is a pretty momentous healthcare-changing event, for naturopathic medicine is a form of holistic primary care that, until now, has been kept hidden from view.
In this resolution, Congress has recognized:
“the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care.” (1)
I Haven’t Heard of Naturopathic Medicine—What Is It?
If you are among the vast majority of Americans who have not had the opportunity to learn about naturopathic doctors (ND’s), ND’s attend 4-year medical colleges accredited by the Department of Education and are trained as holistic primary care doctors. ND’s have training equivalent to that of a conventional medical doctor, but the philosophy of a naturopathic medical education is quite unique.
Common Sense Medicine
Naturopathic medical students are taught throughout their four years of medical school that the body has an innate ability to heal, and that it is best to use the most natural ways and non-toxic ways possible to help the patient get well. ND’s are also appropriately trained to know that in emergency and some urgent care needs, medications and surgery should be first line of intervention for best patient safety.
Sounds like common sense medicine, doesn’t it?
The Dis-ease in Current Healthcare
Common sense medicine is not currently practiced in our country and the results are showing. The vast majority of commonly-used medications do not actually treat the underlying cause of illness, and properly prescribed medications themselves are recognized as the fourth leading cause of death (2). Even more, the New England Journal of Medicine published in 2005 that life expectancy for children born that year will be shorter than that of their parents (3). This is travesty that can change.
In 2010, New England Journal of Medicine reported that the United States ranked 36th in the world in life expectancy, while ranking number one in cost - with costs of almost two and a half times the global average. (4) The World Health Organization ranks the U.S. #1 in heroic care, but 37th in the world (right in between Costa Rica and Slovenia) in terms of quality health care for chronic disease (5). What this tells us is that the U.S. medical system is the best when it comes to emergency care (such as accidents and heart attack care), but the results are pretty dismal for prevention and treatment of chronic disease. We can do much better.
Naturopathic Doctors Can Help Heal the Healthcare Crisis
Preventable illnesses make up about 70% of illness costs in the United States (6). ND’s are poised to help change how medical care is practiced, and also help fill in the primary care need in this country. ND’s are primary care providers who emphasize natural interventions for preventing health problems and ND’s strive to look for the underlying cause of a person’s condition – which contrasts the usual mainstream approach of applying medications to cover symptoms.
Studies using naturopathic medicine have shown benefits such as safely reducing antibiotic need in children (7), better improvement in diabetes care over conventional care alone (8), help with chronic anxiety (9), pain reduction (10), and decrease risk in coronary artery disease (11). Since medical research has shown about 40%–45% of all cancers are preventable through diet and lifestyle choices (12), I expect more needed evidenced-based research will show even greater results to prevent and treat more chronic disease. As more and more people utilize naturopathic care, we will undoubtedly save more lives, slow disease burden, and save money all at the same time.
Doctor As Teacher
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The word doctor comes from the Latin term ‘docere’, which means ‘to teach.’ ND’s spend ample time with each of their patients teaching about health, stress management, exercise, food choices, and individualized nutritional and herbal supplementation. Naturopathic doctors are trained with a thoughtful appreciation of how the environment can impact a person’s health as well. And ND’s teach patients the importance of eating whole foods, organic food when possible, practicing environmental stewardship, and helping the young generation create sustainable healthful life habits.
Can you imagine how the world would change if every doctor used this approach?
Where Can I Visit a Licensed Naturopathic Doctor?
Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., currently license naturopathic doctors. The licensed states are:
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- North Dakota
- United States Territories: Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands
In other states, you may find a naturopathic doctor practicing, but he or she would be limited. For instance, in the State of New York, where I have my practice, I am not allowed to diagnose or treat a condition. So I need to make sure every patient I see also works with a conventional doctor to have physical exams, laboratory test prescriptions, and are given the standards of care for which I am trained to provide, but cannot legally provide in New York State. Many of my patients find this frustrating, for they would prefer to see me for their total primary care needs.
Health care’s Future: Collaborative Care
Fortunately, many natural therapies do not require a prescription, so the ability of a naturopathic doctor to guide healing does not rely on a license for medicine. And, in my experience, many conventional physicians in New York I have the pleasure to collaborate with appreciate the preventive and complementary support I can provide for their patients (as I certainly appreciate their work). Via a mutual respect and an interest in what’s best for the patient, we provide a team-care approach for our mutual patient that benefits everyone involved.
Turf War, Instead of a Patient’s Best Interest?
While many individual and enlightened medical doctors I work with understand the value an ND can provide, the overall attitude of the medical society in my state is quite the opposite. ND’s in New York State have had a licensing bill in the state legislature for the past 10 years. While it has, in David and Goliath style, moved pretty far along the process (even passing through the State Senate), the Medical Society of the State of New York has vehemently opposed licensing naturopathic doctors.
If these gate-keepers truly looked at the record of the many other states who have safely used this medicine (Connecticut has been licensed since 1922), instead of practicing ‘turf war’ mentality, health care could move forward in New York. This turf war issue is also occurring in many other ‘battle ground’ states, including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
How Can I Help Get Naturopathic Doctors Licensed?
If expert natural health care options makes common sense to you, and you are in a state that does not license ND’s, please consider visiting the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians website (www.naturopathic.org) for information about how to write to your state legislators.
Section 2706 of the affordable healthcare act will allow for naturopathic physicians to be covered. So once ND’s are licensed in your state, you could have insurance coverage to work with an expert in natural medicine and preventive care, and the healing of our health care crisis will take a huge step forward.
About Dr. Bongiorno: Peter Bongiorno ND, LAc is co-director of Inner Source Health in New York, and author of How Come They're Happy and I'm Not? The complete naturopathic guide to healing depression for good. More about him can be found through www.drpeterbongiorno.com.
1 - http://beta.congress.gov/bill/113th/senate-resolution/221/text
2 - Starfield B. Is US health really the best in the world? JAMA. 2000 Jul 26;284(4):483-5.
3 – Olshansky et al. A potential decline in life expectancy in the United States in the 21st century. N Engl J Med. 2005 Mar 17;352(11):1138-45.
4 - Murray, et al. N Engl J Med 2010; 362:98-99.
5 - The World Health Report 2000 – health systems: Improving Performance. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2000.
6 - The Dept of Health and Human Services. The Case for Worksite Wellness. Accessed 08-27-2013 at: http://www.foh.hhs.gov/fedstrive/case.html
7 - Sarrell EM. Naturopathic treatment for ear pain in children.Pediatrics. 2003 May;111(5 Pt 1):e574-9.
8 - Bradley R. et al. Adjunctive naturopathic care for type 2 diabetes: patient-reported and clinical outcomes after one year.BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, April 18, 2012
9 - Cooley K et al. Naturopathic care for anxiety: a randomized controlled trial. PLoS One. August 31, 2009
10 - Herman PM. Cost-effectiveness of naturopathic care for chronic low back pain. Altern. Ther. Health Med. Mar-Apr 2008 and Szczurko O. et al.,Naturopathic care for chronic low back pain: a randomized trial.PLoS One. September 19, 2007
11 – Seeley D. et al. Naturopathic Medicine for the prevention of cardiovascular disease.Canadian Medical Association Journal, June 11, 2013
12 - Park DM et al. Br J Cancer. 2011;105(Suppl 2):Si-S81