How are naturopathic doctors educated, trained, and licensed?
Accredited naturopathic medical schools are four-year, in-residence, hands-on medical programs consisting of a minimum of 4,100 hours of class and clinical training. During naturopathic medical school, students are educated in the biomedical sciences as well as the latest advances in science in combination with natural approaches to therapy. They also study disease prevention and clinical techniques.
In addition to a standard medical curriculum, schools require their graduates to complete four years of training in disciplines such as clinical nutrition, acupuncture, homeopathic medicine, botanical medicine, physical medicine, and counseling. For at least the final two years of their medical program, naturopathic medical students intern in clinical settings under the close supervision of licensed professionals.
Given the importance of hands-on, clinical experience for naturopathic medical students, the accrediting body for naturopathic medical colleges does not recognize degrees from online programs of study.
Differences between how MDs and DOs and naturopathic doctors are trained
The general educational structure for naturopathic doctors is comparable to that of conventional medical doctors (MDs) and osteopathic doctors (DOs). In all three medical programs, the first year emphasizes biomedical sciences such as anatomy and biochemistry. Second year classes focus on the diagnostic sciences, including areas such as evidence-based medicine and physiological assessment. All programs progressively increase students’ problem-based learning and integrated coursework, enabling students to learn how different concepts affect one another.
After the first two years, the curricula of the three medical programs focus on applying medical knowledge to real-life situations with simultaneous classroom studies supporting this training. Third- and fourth-year naturopathic medical students have opportunities for hands-on clinical training and practice, often at their schools’ teaching clinics and off-site clinics. This period of clinical training is essential to these students’ education—so much so that clinical training is now being introduced during the first and second years of education at several AANMC-member schools. As a result, naturopathic medical students graduate with experience in diagnosing and treating patients, even before they begin formal practice.
Third- and fourth-year naturopathic medical students have opportunities for hands-on clinical training and practice, often at their schools’ teaching clinics and off-site clinics. This period of clinical training is essential to these students’ education—so much so that clinical training is now being introduced during the first and second years of education at several AANMC-member schools. As a result, naturopathic medical students graduate with experience in diagnosing and treating patients, even before they begin formal practice.
A major difference between the training of the MDs and naturopathic doctors is medical residencies. MD residencies are mandated and regulated by conventional medical schools. As a result, many opportunities for residencies exist at a wide variety of medical facilities and are funded by the federal government.
Naturopathic medical residencies are not nearly as common because they are not yet required by most states (Utah is an exception) or funded by the federal government. In place of a residency, many new naturopathic doctors choose to practice with or shadow an experienced doctor before setting up their own practices.
Like MDs, a growing number of naturopathic doctors choose to specialize or focus their practices. Specialty associations currently exist for Endocrinology, Environmental Medicine, Gastroenterology, Parenteral Therapies, Pediatrics, Primary Care Physicians, Psychiatry, and Oncology. In addition, while practicing Family Medicine, many naturopathic doctors choose an area of focus based on a therapeutic, condition, or population subset.
Prior to admission into an accredited naturopathic medical school, the typical entering student has completed three years of pre-medical training and earned a bachelor of science degree. Students are expected to have completed courses in English and the humanities as well as math, physics, and psychology, with a strong emphasis on chemistry and biology. In addition to prerequisite course work, prospective students must demonstrate appropriate observational and communication skills, motor function, intellectual-conceptual abilities, integrative and quantitative abilities, and behavioral and social maturity.
There are currently seven accredited schools with eight campus locations in the United States and Canada. A degree from an accredited medical school is required for licensure or certification by a state.
The following accrediting institutions provide accreditation services for naturopathic medical schools:
College accreditation is issued by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). All AANMC member schools have been accredited or are in candidate status for accreditation by an ED-approved regional accrediting agency.
Programmatic accreditation is issued by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME). All AANMC member schools have also been accredited—or are candidates for accreditation—by the CNME, the recognized accrediting body for naturopathic medical programs in North America.
The exam required to qualify for naturopathic doctor licensure is administered by the North American Board of Naturopathic Examiners (NABNE). The Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examinations (NPLEX) is a two-part examination. Only students and graduates from accredited or candidate naturopathic programs are eligible to sit for the NPLEX. Passing the NPLEX is required before a doctor of naturopathic medicine can be licensed by a state.
Licensure and certification
Licensure and certification are the highest forms of regulation. They are designed to protect the public by ensuring that certain minimum competency requirements are met. They also set standards for the profession.
Currently 19 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands offer licensure or certification for naturopathic doctors. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians maintains a list of states and territories that license or certify naturopathic doctors.
What is Naturopathic Medicine
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Naturopathic medicine is a distinct practice of medicine that emphasizes prevention and the self-healing process to treat each person holistically and improve outcomes while lowering health care costs.
Naturopathic doctors are educated and trained in accredited naturopathic medical colleges. They diagnose, prevent and treat acute and chronic illness, restore and establish optimal health by supporting the person’s inherent self-healing process. Rather than just suppressing symptoms, naturopathic doctors work to identify underlying causes of illness, and develop personalized treatment plans to address them. Their Therapeutic Order™, identifies the natural order in which all therapies should be applied to provide the greatest benefit with the least potential for damage.
Remove Obstacles to Health. Health, the “natural state” of one’s body, is disturbed by obstacles that lead to disease. The first step in returning to health is to remove the entities that disturb health such as: poor diet, digestive disturbances, inappropriate and chronic stress levels, and individual disharmony. Naturopathic doctors construct a healthy regimen based on an individual’s “obstacles to health” to change and improve the terrain in which the disease developed. This allows additional therapeutics to have the most beneficial effects possible.
Stimulate the Self-Healing Mechanisms. NDs use therapies to stimulate and strengthen the body’s innate self-healing and curative abilities. These therapies include modalities such as clinical nutrition, botanical medicines, constitutional hydrotherapy, homeopathy, and acupuncture.
Strengthen Weakened Systems. Systems that need repair are addressed at this level of healing. Naturopathic doctors have an arsenal of therapeutics available to enhance specific tissues, organs or systems including: lifestyle interventions, dietary modifications, botanical medicine, orthomolecular therapy (use of substances that occur naturally in the body such as vitamins, amino acids, minerals), and homeopathy.
Correct Structural Integrity. Physical modalities such as spinal manipulation, massage therapy, and craniosacral therapy are used to improve and maintain skeletal and musculature integrity.
Use Natural Substances to Restore and Regenerate. Naturopathic medicine’s primary objective is to restore health, not to treat pathology. However, when a specific pathology must be addressed, NDs employ safe, effective, natural substances that do not add toxicity or additionally burden the already distressed body.
Use Pharmacologic Substances to Halt Progressive Pathology. NDs are trained in pharmacology and how to use pharmaceutical drugs when necessary. If their state license permits, they can prescribe these agents themselves or if not, refer to a conventional medical colleague.
Use High Force, Invasive Modalities: Surgery, Radiation, Chemotherapy. When life, limb, or function must be preserved, NDs refer patients to MDs who are expertly trained in these arenas. At the same time, NDs use complementary or supportive therapies to decrease side effects and increase the effectiveness of these invasive procedures.
While many naturopathic doctors are trained in primary care, like conventional medical doctors (MDs), some choose to specialize or focus their practices. Specialty associations currently exist for Endocrinology, Environmental Medicine, Gastroenterology, Parenteral Therapies, Pediatrics, Primary Care Physicians, Psychiatry, and Oncology.
Naturopathic medical education curricula include certain areas of study not covered in conventional medical school. At the same time, aspiring naturopathic doctors receive training in the same biomedical and diagnostic sciences as MDs and osteopathic doctors (DOs). The result is a comprehensive, rigorous, and well-rounded scientific medical education that is both comparable and complementary to that of MDs and DOs. For more information on how naturopathic doctors are educated, trained, and licensed, see FAQ#1 in this service, available here.
FAQ #3: Under what circumstances should I choose to see a naturopathic doctor?
1. You want a doctor who will treat all of you, not just your illness.
Naturopathic doctors (NDs) are trained to treat the whole person. This requires taking the time to listen and understand the genetic, environmental, and behavioral/lifestyle factors that can affect your health. At your initial appointment, you’ll spend up to an hour or more talking with your ND.
2. You want personalized treatment.
NDs understand there is no one-size-fits-all treatment that works for everybody. After your visit with an ND, you’ll leave the doctor’s office with a treatment plan uniquely tailored to you, your health status, your health goals, and your lifestyle.
3. You want to treat the root cause of an illness, not just the symptoms.
Sometimes having trouble sleeping, aches and pains, strange or hard to treat skin rashes, and indigestion or stomach discomfort are symptoms of an underlying illness. While these symptoms can be managed, it’s more important to understand and treat the root cause—which is the focus of naturopathic medicine.
4. You want to actively participate in managing your own health.
An ND will help you learn what your body needs to get well and stay healthy. Patients have the opportunity to feel empowered and hopeful when they understand and are actively engaged in managing their own health.
5. You have chronic pain and don’t want to use pharmaceutical drugs such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or highly addictive opioids to manage it forever.
Pain that lasts six months or more is more complex than acute pain and requires a holistic, long-term approach to manage. NDs are trained to work with you to determine which combination of therapies will work best for you to heal or manage your pain safely so that you can resume daily activities.
6. You have tried all conventional medical options for diagnosing and treating a health condition.
Certain chronic health conditions that have symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, or gastrointestinal distress can be difficult to diagnose and treat, and can benefit from a holistic approach. NDs use diagnostic tools common in conventional medicine, such as detailed health, disease, and prescription drug histories, physical exams, and targeted laboratory testing and imaging. NDs also consider detailed diet history, lifestyle habits and choices, exercise history, and social/emotional factors to assess patients’ needs. These approaches can open doors to new treatment pathways and options.
Licensed naturopathic doctors and their scope of practice
Licensed naturopathic doctors combine knowledge of the body’s natural healing properties with the rigors of modern science to focus on holistic, proactive prevention and comprehensive diagnosis and treatment. By using protocols that minimize the risk of harm, naturopathic physicians help facilitate the body’s inherent ability to restore and maintain optimal health.
Naturopathic doctors treat all medical conditions and can provide both individual and family health care. They can work as primary care providers and as part of an integrated healthcare team. Among the most common ailments they treat are allergies, chronic pain, digestive issues, hormonal imbalances, obesity, respiratory conditions, heart disease, fertility problems, menopause, adrenal fatigue, cancer, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Naturopathic doctors can perform minor surgeries, such as removing cysts or stitching up superficial wounds, however they do not practice major surgery. They also are trained to use prescription drugs, although they emphasize less toxic substances that promote natural healing first, following the Therapeutic OrderÔ to provide the greatest benefit with the least potential for damage. For more information on the Therapeutic Order, see FAQ #2 in this service, available here.
Naturopathic doctors can order all blood reference range and diagnostic imaging tests. They can also order individualized specialty functional medicine labs, such as those for assessing digestive impairment, hormone imbalances, heavy metal and/or environmental toxin exposure, nutritional deficiencies, and adrenal dysregulation. They will evaluate your lab results in combination with your clinical presentation, your health history, and lifestyle and environment factors that might be preventing you from having optimal health.
Choose your naturopathic doctor wisely
When seeking medical care from a naturopathic doctor, it is important to select a doctor who has a naturopathic medical degree earned from an accredited, four-year, in-residence, naturopathic medical college and is licensed or certified. For more information on how to choose a naturopathic doctor, see FAQ #1 in this service, available here.