Naturopathic medicine is predicated on its six principles. Invariably, patients are drawn to see a naturopathic doctor (ND) because they seek care that follows these guidelines. ND patients appreciate the attentiveness of their doctor in fostering a deep understanding of their condition, and all the surrounding details that are important in guiding individualized, lasting change. Patients often report that it is the first time they really feel heard.
Naturopathic patient-centered care:
- Treats the whole person – this includes assessing mind, body and spirit.
- Identifies the root cause of an issue – so treatment will not only address a symptom – but will work to remove the reason why the symptom is showing up.
- Educates patients to understand how they can support their own healing process.
- Uses, when possible, the gentlest approach to treatment.
- Works to prevent illness and emphasize wellness.
What do we mean by “patient-centered care”?
Just as the name implies, patient-centered care is a model of healthcare that places emphasis on the patient’s perspective regarding their own care. They are involved in the decision-making process and their input is not only considered, but valued and implemented into the plan. While patient-centered care is not a new concept (the term has been around for at least five decades), the validity of its implementation has been receiving more attention in recent years.
The literature contains many elaborate descriptions of the elements involved in a patient-centered health care model; the following are considered to be the three core components: 1
- Communication – Appreciating the patient’s perspective and understanding of their health and the care that they have received and would like to receive, as well as the provider effectively communicating to the patient.
- Partnership – Working together to develop a healthcare plan to which both the practitioner and patient can agree will be beneficial.
- Promotion of health – Individualizing the patient’s healthcare plan based upon their own preferences, resources, as well past and current experiences regarding their care.
Other elements cited by authors include compassionate care, sensitivity to patient needs, relationship building, and intra-professional collaboration. 2
Studies show the benefits of a patient-centered approach include better health outcomes, lower cost, and increased patient satisfaction. For example, when patients were given individualized care based upon challenges they were experiencing in their health or life circumstances (meaning the physician adapted the treatment plan based on the patient’s situation), health outcomes greatly improved. 3
Patient-centered communication has also been shown to improve a patients sense of “finding common ground” with their providers and feeling better about the experience, which was correlated to improved recovery from their primary concern. Fewer diagnostic tests were required by spending more time talking with the patient, which translates into lower costs. 4
A patient-centered approach also reduced anxiety and pain levels in fibromyalgia patients (5), decreased hospital readmission rates in the elderly (6), and resulted in the reduction of HbA1C (a marker for blood sugar control), LDL cholesterol, and blood pressure over six months compared to control group which received standard care. 7
Naturopathic Medicine and a Patient-Centered Approach
While more and more allopathic doctors are looking into adopting this way of approaching patient care (note that all of the studies cited above were conducted in conventional settings), a core component of a naturopathic doctor’s training is “meeting the patient where they are” and providing individualized care. NDs appreciate that each patient has unique medical needs, depending on their current state of health, values, goals, resources (financial, social support, access high-quality food), their current state of health, etc. The very essence of how NDs practice medicine is from a patient-centered perspective. Because naturopathic doctors take more time with their patients (up to two hours in some cases), they are uniquely positioned to dig deeply into a patient’s concerns and formulate an individualized treatment plan.
As a concrete example, imagine that a patient comes to see their ND for the very common complaint of gas and bloating after they eat, but they can’t determine which foods are bothering them. A patient-centered naturopathic approach would first ask the questions, “what are they currently eating, and what does the patient think are the most likely culprit/s”. “What is this person’s understanding of food sensitivities and what would be the best approach for them?” The ND may also consider the person’s financial resources; can they afford to pay for a food sensitivity test, or would an elimination diet work be a more cost-effective option? Or perhaps they are currently consuming a Standard American Diet and do not understand that “cleaning up” their diet may be the first step in feeling better, but they have no idea how to accomplish that. Maybe the best approach for this patient would be to recommend supplements or herbs to help with the symptoms while taking small steps in implementing healthier choices. Depending on the circumstances, NDs may then refer to nutritionists or other providers to assist in determining the root cause and removing obstacles to healing.
In providing a whole-person, individualized approach to medicine, naturopathic doctors epitomize the concept of patient-centered care.