Dr. Ellen McDonell didn’t waste any time diving into the field of naturopathic medicine. She had been interested in nutrition, exercise, and preventative medicine from a young age, and she was planning to apply to medical school after graduating from the University of Ottawa. “During my degree, I was introduced to naturopathic medicine, and realized this would be a great fit for me, as it would allow me to treat patients with a stronger focus on the lifestyle medicine I was so passionate about,” Dr. McDonell says.
“I feel fortunate that I became aware of naturopathic medicine prior to finishing my undergraduate degree, and went directly from the University of Ottawa to the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine,” she says.
Finding her way to becoming an ND
Dr. McDonell was excited about her career prospects as an ND, and she pragmatically considered the benefits of going to ND school. “I felt inspired and motivated at the thought of applying, studying, and ultimately practicing naturopathic medicine. I did not have the same feeling for other career choices, including other healthcare professions,” she says. “I certainly thought about the decision a lot, as the career path of a naturopathic doctor is less linear than many other professions. I considered how I would feel about being an entrepreneur and creating my own career opportunities.”
Ultimately, it was these factors, as well as the engaging curriculum at CCNM, that solidified Dr. McDonell’s passion for naturopathic medicine. “I enjoyed every minute of it. I never lost the feeling that it was and is a privilege to study the human body and learn how to resolve illnesses, reduce risk factors for disease, and improve quality of life for individuals,” she says.
A varied education at CCNM
“CCNM is the first accredited naturopathic medical school in Canada,” Dr. McDonell says. “At the time I applied, the program graduated students with a diploma, however, degree status was imminent. I graduated as the first class at CCNM to receive a degree in naturopathic medicine, which is the first and only program in Canada to offer this.”
“Beyond learning how to diagnose and treat illness, communicate with patients, and develop critical thinking skills, I had great exposure to different clinical presentations during my internship year. I had the opportunity to see patients at four different clinics, including the Brampton Civic Hospital’s naturopathic teaching clinic. I was introduced to integrative cancer care on the adjunctive cancer care shift at the Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic, and through an externship at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre where I now work,” she says. “This exposure allowed me to find areas of medicine I am passionate about.”
“I also developed leadership skills through executive positions on the Naturopathic Students Association,” she adds.
From campus to clinic
Dr. McDonell knew what she wanted in her career prior to graduation, and went after it right away. “I wanted to work in integrative cancer care,” she says. “I also knew I wanted to do so at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre (OICC) due to the clinic’s integrative approach to care and active research department. I wrote a proposal to develop a residency position at the Centre, and was fortunate that they decided to implement a research residency. After writing and passing NPLEX and the provincial board exam, I began working there as a naturopathic doctor and research resident.”
Now, she works at the OICC full time. “I spend approximately 60 percent of my time working in research, and 40 percent in clinical practice,” she says. “The OICC has an active research department, conducting clinical trials, observational research, and synthesis research. I also lend a hand with the group programming, nutrition presentations, and blog posts for the OICC, which provides great variety in my week.”
Providing adjunctive cancer care
“In my clinical practice, I use primarily nutrition, nutritional supplementation, herbal medicine, and lifestyle counselling to support individuals before, during, and after conventional cancer treatment. I am a strong proponent of evidence-based integrative medicine, and send communications to the local hospitals regularly to ensure the best possible collaboration,” Dr. McDonell says.
“My practice is almost exclusively focused around adjunctive cancer care. I do welcome family members and caregivers of individuals with cancer, and people looking for primary cancer prevention, which accounts for approximately 5 percent of my patient base,” she adds.
Finding fulfillment in her career and her life
“I like the opportunities that being a naturopathic doctor presents,” Dr. McDonell says. “You can go into clinical practice, which in itself is hugely variable based on the focus you choose to have. You can also go into research, policy and government, private sector nutraceutical work, or teaching.”
“My days and weeks are incredibly varied between seeing patients, conducting research, developing and delivering group programs, and public speaking,” she says. “Attending conferences and participating in continuing education allows me to keep expanding my knowledge and network with other healthcare providers and researchers. Obtaining the ND degree is just the first step, and opens doors in many different areas.”
In addition, she makes a point to maintain a healthy work-life balance. “Outside of work, I pursue my other passions of running and triathlon. Having a balanced life and personal goals is important to my overall health and wellbeing,” she says.
The path forward for future NDs
“Naturopathic medicine is a growing and evolving profession, which makes it an exciting time to be and ND,” Dr. McDonell says. “We need more bright and motivated minds to help us shape the course of naturopathic medicine over the coming decades to bring the profession to its full potential.”
She also advises that becoming an ND requires dedication. “Graduating from naturopathic medical school requires hard work and sacrifice; so does being a naturopathic doctor,” she says. “You have people’s health in your hands, which should not be taken lightly. Work hard, because your patients deserve that.”