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So what in the world is a naturopathic physician anyways? Honestly, I get this question a lot and it can sometimes be difficult to answer in just a few sentences. Sometimes I joke that I am a hippie doctor, or that I have an “ND” rather than an “MD” after my name, and that it looks like a typo. But here is a longer version of what a naturopathic physician is, and why I do what I do.
Naturopathic physicians are trained in 4-year medical schools, similar to conventional medical physicians. To read my entire (long!) blog post about the level of training of ND’s click here. The first two years of naturopathic medical school looks pretty similar to conventional medical school – we learn the same system of diagnosis, the same anatomy, biochemistry, histology, anatomy cadaver lab, pharmacology and laboratory diagnosis. Naturopathic physicians are pretty darn good at making diagnostic decisions.
The last 2 years of naturopathic medical school are the most dissimilar to conventional medicine. In a traditional medical school students spend their last 2 years going through rotations in various specialties (major surgery, oncology, obstetrics, emergency medicine, etc.). This is the time where naturopathic physicians focus on naturopathic therapeutics. We mostly spend time on primary care conditions, once again reviewing the diagnostic criteria for each disease, and talking about how to treat each condition without having to resort to pharmaceuticals.
It is the treatment of patients that looks a little different from conventional medicine. First of all, I spend quite a bit more time with my patients than they are typically used to at a conventional physicians office. This is because we focus on finding and treating the underlying cause – figuring out why they got sick in the first place.
In order to treat the underlying cause naturopathic physicians have a lot of “tools” in the toolbox, so to speak. We often use nutrition or diet therapy which is an individualized prescription based on the unique biochemical needs of each patient. We can also use botanical medicine (herbal medicine), which has been used for thousands of years to help patients. Remember than most pharmaceuticals are actually just plant constituents that are synthetically derived! I prefer to use the whole plant extract in my office because I find that there are less side effects and the whole plant often has other synergistic constituents as well. We can use vitamin or mineral supplementation to drive different biochemical effects in the body, or to replete deficiencies (which are surprisingly common in the American diet).
Naturopathic physicians can also use other modalities (tools) like counseling (techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Motivational Interviewing), lifestyle prescriptions (e.g., for targeted exercise), naturopathic manipulations (similar to chiropractic adjustments), hydrotherapy, balneotherapy, or even prescribe pharmaceuticals, if absolutely necessary.
One thing many people are not aware of is that naturopathic physicians, at least in the state of Montana, can act as primary care physicians. I can order lab work, imaging, do screening exams including well child checks, do immunizations (including the entire CDC schedule of vaccines, or alternate vaccine schedules, if desired), women’s annual exams, referrals to specialists, and more.
So are you against conventional physicians? Absolutely NOT! I regularly refer to specialists who are the experts in their field. I have working relationships with many specialists, including gastroenterologists, pulmonologists, internal medicine specialists and many conventional pediatricians as well. I often have conversations with patients discussing when it is appropriate for them to be referred to a conventional specialist and when it is okay for them to continue naturopathic care in the long term.
I hope this was a good introduction to the differences between naturopathic physicians and conventional physicians. For more information you may want to read one of my older blog posts: “What Naturopathic Physicians are NOT”
I hope this helps!