Is a Naturopathic Doctor a ‘Real’ Doctor?

This is a common question. Is a naturopathic doctor a real doctor? When somebody asks this, what they’re really trying to find out is if naturopathic doctors can be trusted. Are naturopathic doctors legits? Are they quacks?

The short answers: Legit, yes. Quacks, no.

As a naturopathic doctor, who attended a four-year medical school, I can assure you naturopathic doctors are real doctors. Naturopathic doctors are also licensed healthcare providers with legal recognition. That being said, if you define a real doctor as a doctor whose primary treatment method is pharmaceuticals, a naturopathic doctor might look a little different.

What education does a naturopathic doctor have?

A licensed naturopathic doctor (ND) or naturopathic medical doctor (NMD) attends and graduates from a post-graduate doctorate program. Just as in conventional medical schools, naturopathic medical schools require four years of full-time study. It must be accredited by the Council on Naturopathic Medicine Education and recognized by the U.S Department of Education. 

There are currently seven accredited programs across the U.S. and Canada. A program in Puerto Rico is currently in candidacy for accreditation.

Similarities and differences between naturopathic medical schools and conventional medical schools

There are several core similarities between naturopathic medical schools and conventional medical schools:

  • Both naturopathic students and conventional medical students must become experts in the biomedical sciences: anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, immunology, and microbiology. 
  • Both naturopathic doctors and conventional doctors train to diagnose disease using a patient’s history, physical exam, and by interpreting laboratory testing. 
  • Both naturopathic medical students and conventional medical students complete 2-3 years of hands-on clinical rotations during medical school.
  • Both naturopathic doctors and conventional doctors train to prescribe and manage pharmaceutical medications. However, for naturopathic doctors, it is not the first line of treatment.

So what’s different? In addition to the biomedical science and clinical rotations, naturopathic doctors spend all four years studying evidence-based, natural medicine: 

  • Nutrition and using food as medicine
  • Botanical medicine
  • Physical manipulation techniques
  • Mind-body medicine
  • Hydrotherapy 

Consider this: naturopathic doctors study all the core medical curriculum of an MD, plus natural and botanical medicine, as well as psychology and counseling courses.

Why? While much of the core curriculum between a naturopathic doctor and a traditional medical doctor overlap, the differences are important. It’s not just about using natural medicine either. It comes down to how a doctor approaches health.

The six principles guiding your naturopathic doctor

Even though so much of the core curriculum overlaps, the mindset of a naturopathic doctor differs significantly. This difference is rooted in the six principles of naturopathic medicine, which are woven throughout the naturopathic curriculum. As stated on Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges’ website , the six principles are:

  1. The Healing Power of Nature : Trust in the body’s inherent wisdom to heal itself.
  2. Identify and Treat the Causes : Look beyond the symptoms to the underlying cause.
  3. First Do No Harm : Utilize the most natural, least invasive and least toxic therapies.
  4. Doctor as Teacher : Educate patients in the steps to achieving and maintaining health.
  5. Treat the Whole Person : View the body as an integrated whole in all its physical and spiritual dimensions.
  6. Prevention : Focus on overall health, wellness and disease prevention.

People go to naturopathic doctors, because they’re not satisfied with treating symptoms one at a time. They want to figure out how to get their whole body back into health.

Are naturopathic doctors licensed and board certified?

Naturopathic doctors can take the primary care board certification exams that conventional doctors take. However, not every state has laws in place for the licensing of naturopathic doctors. That means in some states, naturopathic doctors are operating with all the legal rights and responsibilities of a primary care physician. They can prescribe pharmaceutical medication and refer you to specialists. In other states, that hasn’t happened yet. See the map below.

Why aren’t there more naturopathic doctors?

Currently, naturopathic doctors make up a very small percentage of physicians in the United States. Not surprisingly, many people have never heard of naturopathic medicine. However, naturopathic medicine has been a distinct profession in the United States for over 100 years. The roots of naturopathic medicine go back thousands of years, drawing on the healing wisdom of many cultures.

In the 1920’s, it was estimated that there were over 10,000 naturopath doctors and more than 20 naturopathic degree programs in the U.S.  But, in the 1940’s, with the rise of pharmaceuticals and the notion that drugs could cure all diseases, most of the naturopathic medical schools shut down.

Now the tides are turning back. 

A revolution is happening as educated individuals protest the current state of healthcare. Health is more than the absence of disease. Proper nutrition and exercise are essential parts of health and healing. 

More and more want an alternative to a drug-focused health care system. 

Naturopathic doctors are perfectly trained to fill this need.