“Wait, what did you say you do? What’s a nat-uro-path?”
I get this question all the time. It's not so surprising when it comes from the average person I meet, but I still hear it from doctors too. Admittedly my profession is rather small and has very little chance of making a popular TV show like Grey's Anatomy. Preventing heart disease and cancer through diet or helping someone break the pattern of insomnia is not nearly as exciting as rare diagnoses or ethically questionable emergency transplant surgeries. In fact, when some "alternative" health approach is portrayed on one of these shows, you can be fairly certain it's why the patient is so ill. Ironic, considering the now-famous JAMA article reporting "medical treatment" as a leading cause of death in Western countries.
Qualified Naturopaths Have Scientific Training
A qualified naturopath has a bachelor's degree, which by definition must be three to five years studying the latest scientific research. After admission, the course work of the first two years of naturopathic and "conventional" medical school is comparable both in subjects and in hours of training. We learn all the basic medical sciences like anatomy, pathology, and biochemistry.
Our clinical training is a bit different from "conventional" medical clerkships. As naturopathic students, we spend all our clinical time in practice (outpatient) setting, under the supervision of qualified and experienced naturopaths. Instead of rotating through a variety of medical specialties, we learn when and how to refer to specialists to diagnose or treat conditions beyond our scope of practice.
Naturopathic Medicine Is Not the Same Thing as Homeopathy
Homeopathy means to give a medicine in a very small dose. Scientifically, we don't know why it works, because the doses are so small. Naturopathic medicine is not how medicine is given specifically, but based on our six principles. Naturopathic medicine refers to an approach to treating people, and tends to favour natural and low-force (scientifically proven) interventions. Our treatments with patients might include dietary changes, supplementary nutrients, exercise, herbal medicine or occasionally homeopathy. So homeopathy can be part of a naturopath’s treatment plan, but it's not the only tool in the shed. That said, other medical providers may use homeopathy as well but that doesn't make them naturopaths.
Naturopaths Can Work Alongside Medical Doctors
Some people assume that naturopaths are against "conventional" medicine, but this isn't true. Health care is best provided by a team, and naturopaths are only one part of the team. There are times when we shine and times when specialists or other medical providers are best suited for the task at hand. We refer our patients to surgeons, cardiologists and other specialists when it's clear their conditions are beyond of our scope of training.
What Makes Naturopaths Different
Our patients often tell us the face-to-face time we spend with them is a lot longer than all the doctors they've seen. We spend that time getting to know each patient as a person. We ask about everything that's going on with them physically, emotionally and oftentimes spiritually. When making a specific recommendation or suggestion, we spend time explaining treatment options and answering questions. We aim to teach our patients about their health and how they can care for it.
Our treatments are advised using the therapeutic order, where we start by laying the basic foundations for healthy living and use higher-force interventions (like specific nutrients, drugs and surgeries) only as conditions become more severe. In this way, we also work with patients who haven't developed a disease yet and simply seek to improve their health whether it be physically, emotionally or spiritually. We consider the term "health care" from its true meaning.
We know our patients are literally atoms, molecules, cells and organs, but we appreciate that they are so much more those physical components. We each exist uniquely in the world, with different values and priorities, and as naturopaths we believe our health care should reflect that.
Yes, some of us are a little "out there," and "touchy-feely." But that's not all that guides our practice. Remember, naturopaths have real training in government-approved subjects and schools, researching and interpreting the latest science in health and nutrition. Our "hippie" medicine works and what we do is becoming less "alternative" and more "conventional" every day.