Naturopathic Doctors (NDs) are state-licensed medical doctors and are licensed to broadly diagnose and treat health problems and diseases in a primary care setting. They are 1 of only 3 categories of doctors (MDs and DOs being the others) with this broad authority to diagnosis and treat in a traditional primary care setting. NDs unique approach to medicine is to combine conventional medical education and diagnostics with a wide variety of holistic and natural treatment approaches in a more personalized setting. Naturopathic Doctors seek to restore health and promote wellness using the safest, most effective and least invasive therapies available, but also write prescriptions for pharmaceuticals if deemed necessary.
Naturopathic Doctors in California attend federally accredited 4-year post-graduate medical schools. In medical school, NDs are educated in the same medical sciences as MDs so they can refer patients to MD specialists when the need arises, and can coordinate their care with MDs/DOs. NDs are also educated and clinically trained in using a broad array of nutritional and holistic therapeutic approaches - nutrition medicine, functional medicine, chiropractic, acupuncture/Chinese medicine, homeopathy and many others. This makes NDs uniquely qualified to also coordinate care with many different types of alternative medicine providers such as chiropractors, acupuncturists, homeopaths - thereby "bridging the gap" between standard medicine and alternative medicine.
Naturopathic Doctors seek to treat the underlying causes of disease, rather than to merely eliminate or suppress the symptoms. NDs work to treat illness while restoring the body to optimal health. Patients often achieve a level of health that standard approaches to medicine alone cannot provide.
Education and training of NDs versus MDs
Just like MDs, NDs attend medical school. The education and training of both MDs and NDs includes:
Two years of basic medical science education
Education in the clinical sciences (various medical specialties)
A board exam covering both the basic sciences and clinical sciences
The basic science education of a Naturopathic Doctor is very similar to that of an MD or a DO according to the Journal of Family Practice. The largest difference is in an MD’s focus on pathology versus an ND’s focus on physiology. MD’s need a greater depth of education and training in pathology in order to achieve a strong competency in surgery.
NDs are better educated in physiology. Physiology is the science of how organism, organ systems, organs, cells and bio-molecules carry out the chemical or physical functions that exist in a living organism.This provides NDs with the best skill sets to improve a patient's physiology using nutritional medicine, supplements, herbs and other natural and non-invasive therapies along with a deep understanding of how to help the body deal with the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs.
The applied science education of a Naturopathic Doctor is similar to that of an MD or DO in that both are educated in the various medical specialties that exist today. While MDs have a stronger focus in the traditional clinical sciences, usually with the intent of pursuing one of these medical specialties in their residencies, NDs learn the traditional clinical sciences and also learn about other treatment modalities and specialties, such as chiropractic, acupuncture, ayurvedic medicine and homeopathy. This provides NDs with the expertise to refer to both conventional medical specialists and many other types of health care practitioners as part of a patient's treatment plan.
In addition to the various medical specialties, NDs are also educated to use medical nutrition and a broad array of clinically effective non-invasive treatment modalities. Utilizing these therapies often requires the ND to carefully follow a patient’s progress to ensure the treatment is effective. If required, more conventional treatment of a patient’s condition is initiated or referred out.
Upon completion of their board exams, both MDs and NDs are considered general practitioners and can practice medicine. MDs typically go on to a residency program to provide them with in-depth training to be board certified, the skills required to perform surgery, and/or the expertise to deliver pharmaceutical drugs and manage patient care in an acute care setting such as a hospital.
At this point in time, most Naturopathic Doctors generally do not do residencies. The profession is beginning to incorporate more residencies, but federal funding of hospital residencies is not currently available to Naturopathic Doctors. To compensate, Naturopathic Doctors are required perform at least 1500 hours of clinical rotations at clinics and physicians offices to round out their medical education.
Because the field of Naturopathic Medicine is relatively small (about 5,000 NDs versus about 800,000 MDs in the U.S.), Naturopathic Medicine has not yet developed a comparable level of specialty to MDs and are usually general practitioners. Many NDs who focus on treating cancer patients are board certified by OncANP, the Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians and are designated as FABNO (Fellow of the American Board of Naturopathic Oncology).