Naturopathic medicine is currently the fastest growing segment of the alternative health movement but not everyone practicing this branch of "natural" medicine is qualified to do so. I like to group naturopaths according to their educational backgrounds because I believe that the quality of your naturopath's education directly affects the quality of care you'll receive. Naturopaths fall into one of three categories:
Medically Trained Practitioners
Medically trained naturopaths are mainstream physicians who have either added natural therapies to their existing practices or have abandoned mainstream medicine altogether in favor of natural therapies. It's estimated that only 3% of mainstream physicians practice any natural therapies so if you can find one exclusively practicing natural medicine grab hold and don't let go. Their education and extensive training make these professionals among the best of the best when it comes to natural health.
Self-Trained and Untrained Practitioners
If medically trained practitioners are among the best of the best then the healers at the opposite end of the spectrum are among the worst. These are what I call the untrained or self-taught practitioners and many of them fall into what I also call the I-read-a-book-and-now-I'm-an-expert group. I've known some wonderful self-taught herbalists but before you hire a self-trained naturopath consider the following:
* Many self-trained practitioners are self-trained because they feel disenfranchised from medicine, the government and society in general. These "rebels without a cause" often deny clients valid medical information in favor of more "natural" treatments.
* Self-trained practitioners often have a poor understanding of basic anatomy and physiology. This can make diagnosis difficult and may result in ineffective or inappropriate treatment.
* Self-trained practitioners aren't going to have access to professional resources like professional journals, peer-reviewed research materials and professional-level diagnostic tools. This can especially worrisome in regard to herb/drug interactions and often means that the practitioner is operating without liability or malpractice insurance.
Traditionally Trained Naturopaths
Between the medically trained and self-trained practitioners is a group of professionals known as the traditionally trained naturopaths. Like their mainstream peers, these practitioners are formally educated but their education focuses on non-invasive, drug-free therapies. Licensure varies from state to state and most naturopaths work primarily as consultants but some, especially the NDs (Naturopathic Doctors), can replace your mainstream family physician. Before you hire a traditionally trained naturopath ask about his or her educational background. (Unfortunately, diploma mill "degrees" are common in this field.) Anyone using the term "doctor" should have a doctorate-level degree from a legitimate naturopathic school.
Before you hire an alternative health practitioner (or any mainstream practitioner, for that matter) request a free consultation and ask a few questions. Any "natural" practitioner that balks at basic questions like these should be avoided:
*Where did you go to school?
*What's your area of expertise?
*What professional organizations do you support?
*What do you think about mainstream medicine?
Most importantly, remember that "natural" doesn't always mean "safe" or "best". No legitimate naturopath will deny his or her client information about mainstream treatments, prescription drugs or surgical options.
Lisa Barger is a traditionally trained naturopath specializing in illness prevention counseling. Ms. Barger holds certification in Ayurveda, Iridology, Homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine and American Herbology.