Guest Post by Valerie A. Gettings, CNHP

Having a career as a licensed naturopathic doctor (ND) is exciting and rewarding. However, choosing what type of educational program to enroll in is often a confusing decision for many potential students, who come across numerous different types of naturopathic doctor and naturopathy programs advertised. How do you choose the right one for you? Some schools offer online or correspondence programs, while others are accredited four year, in-residence medical schools. With all of the programs out there, it’s important to know that not all naturopathic doctor programs are created equal, and that graduates of these programs leave with varied degree/certificate titles and professional training, which can create confusion for patients. This is especially true when it comes to knowing the difference between a traditional naturopath and a licensed naturopathic doctor/physician (ND) in North America.

What is the difference between a traditional naturopath and a licensed naturopathic doctor?

While both traditional naturopaths and licensed NDs aim to help the body heal through natural substances such as food, herbs, and water, their education is very different, and their scope of practice and regulatory status vary from state to state and province to province—and in some states and provinces there are not yet any regulations pertaining any types of naturopathic practice. The titles “traditional naturopath” and “naturopathic doctor” (or “naturopathic physician”) are not interchangeable. A licensed ND is a primary care physician who is trained to diagnose and prescribe, while a traditional naturopath is not able to do either. In some states where naturopathic medicine is not yet a regulated medical profession, a traditional naturopath may on his/her own, choose to use the title, “naturopathic doctor,” which is likely to be confusing to patients looking for a licensed ND.

What is the education of a licensed naturopathic doctor?

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, a naturopathic medical student in the United States or Canada attends a four-year, professional, in-residence doctoral program accredited by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME). The CNME is recognized as an accrediting body by the U.S. Department of Education, and it is the only accrediting body for naturopathic medical programs in the U.S. and Canada that qualify graduates for licensure. Students from accredited naturopathic medical schools complete a more than 4,100 contact hours of instruction, including at least 1,200 hours of supervised, hands-on clinical training. The schools’ evidence-informed  curricula consists of biomedical sciences—including anatomy (with cadaver lab), physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, immunology, and embryology)—similar to conventional medical school, as well as clinical medicine, homeopathy, botanical medicine, lifestyle management, nutrition, pharmacology, radiology, physical medicine. Additionally, the curriculum includes specialized classes in such areas as pediatrics, fibromyalgia, oncology, and sports medicine. Some schools also offer the option of studying Asian medicine and acupuncture, which enables graduates to become a licensed acupuncturist in addition to a licensed ND.

In order to become licensed, naturopathic medical graduates must also pass the two-part national board exam, Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Exam (NPLEX), which consists of biomedical science and clinical medicine portions. Some licensed ND students go on to complete post-doctoral residencies in health care facilities across North America.

Currently there are eight accredited naturopathic medical programs in Canada and the U.S., and NDs are regulated in 20 states and 5 provinces, as well as the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. In some of these states and provinces, licensed NDs are able to prescribe pharmaceuticals, administer vaccinations, and perform minor surgery, as well as order labs, diagnostic imaging, and food sensitivity tests. NDs follow different career paths and work in a variety of settings such as hospitals, integrative oncology care, private practice, medical schools, and government organizations.

What is taught at a traditional naturopathic school?

Online and correspondence naturopathic doctor degree or certificate programs teach a variety of classes that help students understand the healing power of nature and the innate ability of the body to heal itself. The classes may consist of botanical medicine, homeopathy, orthomolecular nutrition, introductory anatomy, reflexology, and iridology, among others. Program length can vary from a few months to a few years to complete. There is no standard curriculum for traditional naturopathic programs and they are not accredited by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education.

Since classes are mostly offered online in traditional naturopathic programs, these programs lack standardized, on-site, clinical training in treating patients under the supervision of experienced licensed NDs. Also, faculty in traditional naturopath programs are not required to be licensed NDs, which is in contrast to CNME-accredited four-year naturopathic medical programs where naturopathic faculty must have an ND degree and other faculty must have terminal degrees in their professional fields (e.g., PhD). Some traditional naturopath programs are entirely online, and students in these programs may never interact with faculty in person.

In addition, traditional naturopaths are not eligible to write the NPLEX national board exam or obtain licensing. For that reason, many traditional naturopaths choose to practice in unregulated states and provinces, and use their knowledge primarily to help family and friends, or for their own personal health use. Some individuals trained as traditional naturopaths subsequently choose to attend a four-year, CNME-accredited naturopathic medical program in order to become licensed.

Which program should I attend?

  1. Determine your end-goal. First, it’s important to determine what you want to do with your education. If you want to be trained as a primary care physician and act as a partner in health with your patients, then becoming a licensed ND may be the career for you. However, if you want to learn more about botanical medicine, nutrition, or homeopathy, and use that education to help yourself or family, there are many other programs that may fulfill that desire.
  2. Do your research. Find out what the degree you are looking at will allow you to do. Each state and province is different in terms of scope of practice and regulation of both naturopathic doctors and traditional naturopaths. Also, the term “accredited” can be confusing because many online or correspondence naturopathic programs are “accredited” by organizations that—unlike the CNME which accredits 4-year, doctoral level ND programs—are not recognized by the U. S. Department of Education. These other types of programs will not make you eligible to obtain licensure or write NPLEX. So carefully research your options before deciding.
  3. Fall in love with the curriculum. Whatever program you decided to attend, make sure you fall in love with the curriculum, and that it will enable you to reach your desired end-goal.

For more information about CNME-accredited ND programs and becoming a licensed ND, visit AANMC.org.

Valerie A. Gettings, CNHP, is a third year naturopathic medical student at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, Toronto, ON, Canada. She is also a traditional naturopathic doctor graduate from Trinity School of Natural Health. Prior to her path in naturopathic medicine, Valerie was a public affairs specialist and director for community outreach for U.S. Navy Medicine. Valerie received her B.A. in public communication and international relations from American University, Washington, D.C.

Learn More About Becoming a Naturopathic Doctor

Click below to receive information from the seven accredited naturopathic medical schools across eight North American campuses!