What Kind of Doctor is a Naturopathic Physician?

Guest post by AANMC President, Fraser Smith, MATD, ND

When I first decided to study naturopathic medicine in the early 1990s, I received different reactions from friends, family and co-workers. Some people thought I was taking a lightweight course to learn to dispense nutritional supplements and herbs. Some people gave me an affirming nod and stated that they loved naturopathic medicine, having grown up using nature’s medicines complements of a parent or grandparent. Even today, with much more information available with a quick question to Google, Alexa or Siri, I find that future students and potential patients really appreciate this discussion with an actual naturopathic doctor. My interns in the naturopathic medicine program where I teach, do such a good job of this with their patients, that I learn something new all the time.

Simply put, a naturopathic doctor practices primary care, and uses mostly natural agents (food, water, herbs, hands on treatment, physiotherapy etc.) to remove obstacles to healing and support the body’s ability to self-heal. The ND takes a careful look at how the determinants of health, be it hydration, sleep or loving relationships are met well in the patient or are deficient or disturbed. These disturbances, while perhaps tolerable in the short term, lead to dysfunction in the long term, and changes to the body’s physiology. This in turn, generates symptoms, which are just that, an expression of some underlying disturbance. So, an ND is extremely adept at both supporting the body’s self-healing and rooting out and removing the underlying causes. When we say that NDs are primary care, this means that an ND can be the first practitioner to see a patient and can make an initial assessment. Primary care requires skills of diagnosis, estimating the outcome of treatment options, and referring when necessary. In some jurisdictions, NDs can prescribe medication, which is useful for those in pain as well as those with chronic conditions or advanced age. NDs in practice are aware of the ways in which medication can help someone, but they are more focused on addressing causes and supporting the ability of the body to heal. Most of our patients have what we call chronic conditions, and are already on a host of medicines when they come to see us; they want to reduce the number they take to get through the day, not increase them! They want what Dr. Joseph Pizzorno, Bastyr University founding president, has referred to as “Total Wellness”.

What About Conventional Medicine?

This can vary as much as specialties of medicine differ. Some medical doctors work only with children, some deliver babies, some treat the heart and others with patients in palliative care or hospice care in their final weeks of life. What medical doctors have in common is that they are focused on preserving life and extending life, and usually at reducing symptom intensity. They are not directly concerned with enhancing the body’s healing abilities, although they certainly want to see it happen and indirectly their therapies count on it. Ask any surgeon who leaves a wound sutured together and checks it two days later to see the tissue restore itself. Medicine puts patient symptoms into little categories; when the patient’s problem fits those categories neatly, and there happens to be a cure, such as using antibiotics to treat a flesh wound, everyone is happy. When the patient’s problems do not yield to this approach, such as many chronic pain syndromes, much allergy, constantly mutating conditions such as chronic Lyme disease and many, many other scenarios, this “messiness” of the condition can frustrate the medical doctor and patient alike. The patients need deep healing and a sweeping away of old habits, not necessarily an attack on one symptom or one manifestation of their underlying problems.

What About Osteopathic Medicine?

Osteopathic doctors (DOs) in the United States are trained much like medical doctors and have a similar scope. They were once more like NDs and some still use a form of joint and soft tissue manipulative therapy that is very powerful, but for the most part they are allegiant to the medical model. Still, many patients find that DOs offer a more holistic approach to family medicine/ internal medicine and rather like seeing them.

What does this all mean for a student trying to place themselves in the world of medicine? It all boils down to a few simple questions. How do you most want to help people, day in and day out? Do you want to become very technically proficient in one area and use a standard set of tools to fix problems of one kind – heart, lung, kidney etc.? Or are you fascinated by the connections between the various aspects of a human being and how disease can emerge? Do you see the health of patients interconnected with the health of the planet and of our society and want to see truly deep healing take place?

People need all of these approaches and while some medical doctors are still slow to embrace naturopathic medicine (but many have already!), naturopathic doctors are trained to be aware of and are supportive of the instances where the medical approach is best or temporarily needed.

Many North Americans have only known medical doctors as their care giver, and do not realize that across the globe, in advanced economies and developing economies, people by the billions use natural medicine. The percentage of the population can range from 30 percent to 70 percent in many cases, in China, India, Africa and many European countries, to name a few.

Naturopathic medicine, as practiced here in North America and increasingly around the world, is using scientific advances and knowledge to update the practice. This is a trend that accelerates, and yet its elements are simple. When an ND and a patient decide to partner together to bring out the healing that patient is capable of to the fullest extend and make intelligent use of therapies and lifestyle changes, great things can happen.

Dr. Fraser Smith

About the Author

Fraser Smith, MATD, ND is president of the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges and chief academic officer for the ND program serving as Assistant Dean of Naturopathic Medicine at the National University of Health Sciences’ (NUHS) College of Professionals Studies. He is a professor and author of the textbook, Introduction to Principles and Practices of Naturopathic Medicine. Dr. Smith is also the author of three additional books for the public, Keep Your Brain Young; The pH Balance Health & Diet Guide for GERD, IBS and IBD; and The Complete Brain Exercise Book. He is an editorial board member of the Natural Medicine Journal, and teaches botanical medicine, pharmacology and naturopathic history, philosophy and principles at NUHS. Dr. Smith is licensed to practice as a naturopathic physician in Vermont. He is past president (2008 – 2013) of the Illinois Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

 

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