What is naturopathic medicine?

Naturopathic medicine is a distinct system of primary care medicine based on the philosophy that the human body possesses innate self-healing mechanisms. The practice of this medicine emphasizes harnessing those mechanisms and optimizing them to promote healing and cure. This is done using individualized treatment, prevention and discovering and treating the root cause of each person's disease. Licensed naturopathic doctors (NDs) view each patients as a complex, unique human being and prescribe treatment plans that are tailored to each individual as a whole person. NDs teach their patients how to use food, breathing, exercise and lifestyle habits as well as specific medicines to become healthier, happier people. The tools used by naturopathic doctors to achieve healing are diverse, and different doctors often specialize in the use of certain modalities. Some of the main tools that naturopathic doctors are trained to use include nutrition, herbal medicine, hydrotherapy, homeopathy, naturopathic manipulative technique (similar to chiropractic adjustments), IV and injection therapies, pharmaceutical medications and minor surgery.

Another important aspect of naturopathic medicine is the Therapeutic Order. This is an “order of operations” that provides a framework for what types of treatments to use when, and advises using the gentlest medicine that will be effective in any given situation. For example, it does not make sense to send someone in for surgery if a pharmaceutical would address his or her problem, and it does not make sense to prescribe a pharmaceutical with unpleasant side effects if an herbal tincture with no side effects would do the trick. It’s all about matching the invasiveness of the medical intervention to the severity of the condition. NDs do this exceptionally well and are trained in the application of many effective natural remedies to use when pharmaceuticals are unnecessary. This makes for a much safer and more pleasant experience for patients. 

Naturopathic Medical Education

Licensed naturopathic doctors undergo a rigorous 4-year doctorate program including the same basic science curriculum as MDs, plus extensive clinical and observational hours. In addition to a standard medical curriculum, the naturopathic physician also studies clinical nutrition, homeopathic medicine, botanical medicine, psychology and counseling. See here for a complete ND curriculum example. In order to be accepted into an accredited naturopathic doctorate program, a pre-medical undergraduate coursework is required. There are eight accredited naturopathic medical colleges in the United States and in Canada. See the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) website for more information. After completing the 4-year program, a naturopathic student is eligible to sit for the NPLEX licensing exam. Upon passing this rigorous three day exam, one is eligible to apply for a license in one or more of the states/provinces/territories that offer naturopathic licensure. 

See here for a comparison of naturopathic medical curriculum with the curricula of conventional medical and non-accredited naturopathic schools.

Licensure for NDs currently varies state by state

A legislative summary by Dr. Todd Robinson, Florida Naturopathic Physicians Association, Secretary and Legislative Chair:  

"Currently, 17 American states, 5 Canadian provinces, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands all have laws regulating the practice of naturopathic medicine (click here to see a map).  While the scope of practice for naturopathic doctors in these localities does vary, most licensure laws include the ability to diagnose and treat illness and prescribe certain pharmaceutical medications.  When visiting a naturopathic doctor in one of these regulated localities, patients can be confident they are seeing a qualified naturopathic doctor who has graduated from a CNME accredited naturopathic medical school and has also passed the NPLEX licensing exam. Unfortunately, in localities that are unlicensed/unregulated, healthcare consumers have no such assurances when visiting a naturopathic doctor (i.e. – anyone with any level of training and education can claim to be a naturopathic doctor).  As such, it behooves healthcare consumers to inquire about the training and education of any naturopathic doctor they visit in an unlicensed or unregulated area."