Not All Doctors Are MD’s. – A Guide To Natural Practitioners

“The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will instruct his patients in care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.”    ~ Thomas Edison

Since the resurgence in popularity of “alternative” or natural medicine, there’ve been many types of practitioners to arise in our local areas – some good, some not so great. But the point of this article isn’t to differentiate between the good and bad. Rather, we’ll be focusing on the types of practitioners, as well as their general practices and educations. What this will (hopefully) help you achieve is the ability to choose a doctor/practitioner whose education and knowledge is most suited to your individual needs. So, let’s get this thing in full swing!

1. Naturopaths:
Yes, I’ll admit to being a bit biased in listing Naturopaths first, as it is my future career choice. (And as such, this description will delve a bit further). But, soon to become synonymous with the phrase ‘natural medicine’ is ‘Naturopath,’ just like ‘prescription medication’ is to ‘doctor’ or ‘pharmacist.’ As of this moment, licensure of Naturopaths is moving state-by-state. In 17 states and 3 U.S. territories, the title ‘Naturopathic Doctor’ is currently under government regulations (see below for a list of these states). In other words, to say one is an ND in the licensed states requires the appropriate education (8 years of education and residency at a naturopathic medical school). In those licensed states, a naturopath can (but does not always) prescribe pharmaceutical medications, and can even perform minor surgery. In essence, an ND is equivalent to an MD, and can legally be considered your primary healthcare practitioner.
However, in all the remaining non-regulated states, anyone can use the title ND. This means that anyone practicing as an ND in non-regulated states could be well educated, or know less than my friend’s 4-year-old about human physiology. To quote Forrest Gump: you never know what you’re going to get. So, be cautious of people using the title without the education.

States currently regulating the ‘ND’ title: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington. (Including the territories of: D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands).

Okay! So with that out of the way, let’s get to business here.

4 years of premedical or science-focused higher education (Bachelors), followed by an additional 4-year graduate degree program and residency (Doctorate). Naturopaths receive education in generally the same subjects as MDs, with more focus on natural medicine than pharmacology.

General Practices:
Naturopaths vary in their practices. They may include any of the following: botanical medicine, pharmaceutical medicine, nutritional therapy, lifestyle counseling, clinical and laboratory diagnostic testing, general counseling, minor surgery, homeopathy, acupuncture, intravenous and injection therapy, and naturopathic obstetrics (natural childbirth). Which of these a Naturopath chooses for a patient depends on the individual’s needs and the doctor’s personal beliefs, as well as experience. As a note: most Naturopaths will avoid using pharmaceuticals unless they believe the patient’s condition justifies their usage.

2. Integrative Medical Doctors and Osteopaths:
These are our typical MDs and DOs, but with a twist! Many standard practitioners these days operate by incorporating natural medicines into their practices. Most of the time, these doctors will advertise that they run their practice in this way – sometimes you’ll only hear about ‘em through word-of-mouth. As the medical community generally disagrees with natural modalities, oftentimes these doctors can have their hands tied as far as what they can and can’t prescribe/advise.

Both MDs and DOs go through premedical or science-heavy bachelor programs (4 years), followed by an additional doctoral program at a medical school (4-years), and 3-8 years of residency, internships, or fellowships. In other words: lots of experience, lots of debt.

General Practices:
Integrative doctors will practice both natural and standard medicine. Their practices could include any of those listed for naturopaths, but will often include more pharmaceutical medication.

3. Chiropractors:
Though most well-known for the adjustment of the spine, Chiropractors have historically leaned towards natural medicine. Spine adjustment, of course, is a natural therapy in and of itself! It seems, more and more recently, that those chiropractors who favor natural methods of healing have steadily begun to outnumber those who don’t.

Chiropractors go through a pre-medical or science-focused bachelors program (4 years), followed by an additional doctoral program at a chiropractic university (4 years).

General Practices:
Since a chiropractor’s practices are so varied, it’s hard to say what to expect when visiting them for natural health advice. Some might practice similar to a naturopath, while others favor more extensive chiropractic adjustment therapies. Since chiropractors are regulated differently than integrative MDs and NDs, they can be more limited as to what therapies they can recommend.

4. Eastern Medicine Practitioners:
Eastern Medicine is a term used to define the medical practices of primarily Asia. This includes Ayurveda (India’s ancient medical system), Traditional Chinese Medicine, Japanese folk medicine, and so on. Generally speaking, most Eastern Medicine is focused on herbal medicines and physical medicine (eg, acupuncture and massage therapy). It has become increasingly popular and more streamlined as a career choice, and as such, it’s increasingly more common to see these practitioners throughout the USA. Some titles these practitioners may go by: Ayurvedic Doctor, Traditional Chinese Medical Doctor, and Acupuncturist.

This varies by type of Eastern Medicine. In general, Eastern Medicine practitioners have attained a bachelor’s degree (4 years), and graduated from a master’s degree program (2 years). Some Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners have attained a doctorate (8 years total).

Though highly varied, you can expect an Eastern Medicine practitioner to administer herbal medicine and perform physical medicines, such as acupuncture, oil massage, and reflexology.

There are a few practitioners out there who qualify for their own category (massage therapists, as an example), though I can’t provide general notes on their education or practices – they vary too greatly.

When choosing an alternative practitioner, keep in mind that, though there are a lot of good ones out there, there are bad ones as well.

Trust your practitioner’s advice and therapy, but always be sure to consider one thing: “is my health improving, under their care?” If your health or condition doesn’t improve – find someone else. Don’t get stuck with someone who isn’t helping you. Remember: your health is your responsibility!

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