How to Become a Naturopathic Doctor

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Naturopathic physicians combine elements of conventional allopathic medical treatments with traditional and alternative therapies to restore and maintain the health and well-being of their patients. A naturopathic doctor, or ND, takes an holistic approach to the diagnosis and treatment of illness. By looking beyond the symptoms of disease, they seek to uncover the underlying physical, emotional and behavioral causes of their patient’s ailments. This allows the ND to develop natural and sympathetic treatment protocols that do much more than simply attack the patient’s symptoms, bringing the body’s own natural healing powers into play to restore and promote the health of their patients.

Naturopathic medicine is one of the fastest growing sectors of the healthcare industry, and as more and more people search for natural solutions to their healthcare needs naturopathic doctors are answering a call to which conventional medicine has so far been slow to respond.

Understanding Naturopathic Medicine

The fundamental philosophy embodied in the Hippocratic oath take by all doctors is to “first do no harm”, and this concept lies at the very heart of naturopathic medicine. Naturopathic doctors rely on traditional healing protocols (nutrition, botanical medicine, Oriental medicine, homeopathy, etc) combined with modern medical modalities to promote the overall health of their patients.

The emphasis is on the prevention of disease, and through the combination of traditional and modern medical principles NDs are able to treat their patients more effectively by encouraging the natural self-healing potential that is innate within us all. To that end naturopathic physicians follow these core principles:

  • Utilize methods and medicinal substances which minimize any risk of harm to the patient;
  • Use the least amount of force to diagnose and treat the patient;
  • Whenever possible avoid the harmful suppression of the patient’s symptoms;
  • Work with and encourage the body’s self-healing processes.

Naturopathic doctors also take the role of teacher and adviser to their patients. Part of treating the whole person, instead of the isolated illness, is teaching the patient how to better care for themselves and optimize their personal health. This involves diagnoses which consider the patient’s physical and mental health, as well as any environmental, behavioral or genetic factors which might adversely impact an individuals overall health and well-being. The NDs job is to assess these factors and teach their patients how to make the necessary adjustments in the lifestyles to better prevent instances of disease or illness.

Of course, the natural aspects of naturopathic medicine are only part of the equation. NDs are also trained in modern conventional medical techniques, and may bring them to bear in the diagnosis and treatment of their patients. This is an important distinction to make, especially for those considering a career in naturopathic medicine.

The education and training is as rigorous for NDs as it is for general medical practitioners, and the responsibility to patients and the public is just as profound. While a naturopathic physician may take a more holistic view toward the treatment of their patients, and while they may emphasize traditional and homeopathic therapies, they are also well versed in conventional medical standards and are able to write prescriptions and perform minor surgery when the occasion demands.

Career Opportunities

The practice of naturopathic medicine includes a wide range of diagnostic and therapeutic techniques that provide ample career opportunities for the licensed ND. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Clinical and diagnostic testing
  • Nutritional medicine
  • Botanical medicine
  • Physical and manipulative therapies
  • Homeopathy
  • Acupuncture and Oriental medicine
  • Prescription medications
  • Naturopathic obstetrics (including fertility treatments and natural childbirth)
  • Minor outpatient surgery

Training in these areas and others positions an ND to practice in a variety of settings as wither primary care physicians or specialists. Many naturopathic doctors choose to go into private practice, while others start out working in family health clinics or multi-disciplinary healthcare facilities. While it is unusual for naturopathic physicians to work in a hospital setting they may, at times, be called upon to advise or assist in the treatment of a hospitalized patient.

Professional Outlook

The demand for naturopathic doctors and nurses has grown rapidly over the last few decades. That trend is expected to continue, with the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicting a 14% increase in job growth over the next ten years for all currently tracked healthcare professions.

While the BLS tracks job growth in alternative and traditional medicine under the broader umbrella of healthcare in general, their predictions appear to be borne out by similar estimates made by the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges. The AANMC, however, predicts slightly faster growth for workers in naturopathic medicine, largely due to the graying of the American population and the interest baby boomers are showing in alternative and holistic healthcare options. Americans are living longer than ever before, and they are looking for natural and effective ways to improve and maintain their personal health.

Income and Earning Potential

The average income for a naturopathic physician can be difficult to calculate accurately. Much depends on the experience of the individual and whether they are working in a private practice or a clinical setting. The AANCM puts the median net income for a naturopathic doctor at approximately $90,000 per year. This assumes assumes a salaried individual working in a successful practice and may not reflect the actual income of a self employed ND. Fortunately, we have other metrics to help predict potential earnings for naturopathic doctors at various levels of experience and employment.

According to PayScale, a US based compensation analytics firm, the average annual income for naturopathic doctors as of 2016 was $72,522. This figure is based on an estimated hourly pay rate of $27.50. Sokanu, a leading career matching platform and data resource, places their estimate slightly higher at $74,710. Again, experience plays a key role in any doctor’s earning potential and these estimates reflect the average of both highly experienced and newly licensed naturopathic doctors. Breaking down potential earnings into the following graph should better illustrate the income trajectory of fully licensed naturopathic physician.

Level of Experience Hourly Compensation Projected Annual Income
Entry level Naturopathic Doctor $18.96 $39,440
Junior Naturopathic Doctor $26.69 $55,520
Experienced Naturopathic Doctor $34.92 $74,710
Senior Naturopathic Doctor $51.49 $107,090
Senior Specialist in Naturopathic Medicine $65.36 $135,950

Geographical location also plays a large part in the earning potential of naturopathic physicians. Some states offer greater opportunities than others, both in the popularity of naturopathic medicine and in the general prices paid for medical services. For example, naturopathic doctors practicing in the District of Columbia tend to earn significantly more than their counterparts in Massachusetts or Florida.

Pre-Med Educational Strategies

Education is the driving force behind any medical career, and in order to become a licensed doctor of naturopathy you should expect to devote yourself to several years of graduate and post-graduate studies. This begins with earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four-year college or university. It is important that the school you attend be fully accredited, otherwise your completed coursework will not transfer to your post-graduate school.

Throughout your undergraduate and graduate studies you will be working towards your bachelor’s degree. While it’s true that there isn’t necessarily a ‘preferred’ degree when it comes to being accepted into a post-graduate medical school, there are some that carry more weight than others. Degrees in one of the BCPM sciences (biology, chemistry, physics and math) are often looked on more favorably in post-graduate university applications and interviews. That being said, a bachelor’s in psychology or nutrition or can also be a good foundation for entry into a college of naturopathic medicine. But regardless of your final degree, your graduate studies should include a full slate of standard pre-med coursework. This should include chemistry, biochemistry, anatomy, physiology and cellular biology. You must also complete all the necessary lab-work associated with your pre-med studies.

Admission into a naturopathic school of medicine can be highly competitive, and your performance in grad school will play a big part in whether or not you are accepted into a post-graduate program. Most colleges of naturopathic medicine expect applicants to have, at minimum, a 3.0 GPA. You should also be prepared to provide a history of extracurricular activities that support your interest in naturopathic medicine and your intent to help others.

Working an an NDs office, volunteering for naturopathic research projects, and attending lectures and conferences on topics related to natural healthcare can help to boost your profile when applying for admission to the post-graduate school of your choice.

Preparing for Medical School

Naturopathic colleges of medicine are like any other post-graduate medical school. The curriculum is rigorous and encompasses both traditional medical subjects and holistic medical training. The four-year degree program focuses on core areas such as:

  • anatomy
  • biochemistry
  • microbiology
  • pharmacology
  • physiology

as well as key principles of natural medicine, including:

  • acupuncture and Oriental medicine
  • botanical medicine
  • homeopathy
  • hydrotherapy
  • nutritional medicine
  • and psychology.

The first two years spent at a college of naturopathic medicine are much like those at any other post-graduate medical school. Students take the standard classes in biomedical and diagnostic sciences, augmented with specialized coursework in the holistic understanding of the human body along with naturopathic modalities for the treatment and care of patients. The last two years of a naturopathic degree continues to focus on holistic diagnostic and treatment techniques, and will involve extensive hands-on clinical work under the supervision of a licensed teaching ND.

Choosing a College of Naturopathic Medicine

The time to start considering where you will complete your post-graduate education is during the final two years at your primary college or university. You’ll want to allow yourself time to fully investigate your options, comparing various schools and looking at their location, the cost of tuition and the school’s overall reputation in their field. You should also be mindful of their admission requirements to ensure that your current study program falls in line with what will be expected of you when it comes time to make your formal application for acceptance to the colleges on your short list.

As you begin narrowing down your school choices there are some key points to consider. First, the location of the school itself. Currently, there are only 7 accredited colleges of naturopathic medicine in the United States and Canada. This limited number of schools means that you will most likely be studying away from home, and that may play a large part in determining the schools to which you will ultimately apply.

Cost of tuition will be the next significant factor in your choice of school. The average cost of a post-graduate program in naturopathic medicine is $40,000, not including housing, books, lab materials and other ancillary fees. This is a significant investment, and most students will require some form of financial aid to meet their total cost of tuition. As you investigate the various colleges on your list, be sure to research any and all financial aid programs which may be available. This should include Federal grants and students loans, as well as any potential work study programs or scholarships that may be offered through the college.

Finally, in order to be licensed to practice as an ND your doctorate degree must be granted by an accredited college of naturopathic medicine. Before committing to any school, check their accreditation with Federation of Naturopathic Medicine Regulatory Authorities or the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges (AANMC).

The following accredited colleges of naturopathic medicine are currently recognized by the AANMC, and all of these schools operate campuses in the United States.

  • Bastyr University – With campuses located in Seattle, Washington and San Diego, California Bastyr University is one of the leading colleges of naturopathic medicine in the United States. Globally recognized for its rigorous curriculum and research facilities Bastyr offers fully accredited programs that combine natural healing traditions with modern medical understanding.
  • Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and Health Sciences – Located in Phoenix, Arizona SCNM has been educating and training naturopathic doctors for more than 20 years. The school offers extensive four-year and five-year ND programs concentrating on holistic and integrative healthcare techniques. Programs include extended residencies supervised by licensed naturopathic healthcare professionals.
  • National University of Health Sciences – Since 1906 NUHS has been a leader in integrative medicine, offering courses in chiropractic medicine, naturopathic medicine and traditional Oriental Medicine. The university’s post-graduate ND programs combine a solid scientific foundation with with training in naturopathic and holistic diagnostic and treatment techniques.
  • University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine – The University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine is dedicated to revolutionizing healthcare in the 21st century. The college’s ND programs combine traditional and alternative medical techniques with cutting scientific advances to train the next generation of naturopathic physicians.

Licensing and Certification

Once you have completed your post-graduate studies, and have been awarded your doctoral degree in naturopathic medicine, you will have take the necessary steps to be licensed by the North American Board of Naturopathic Examiners (NABNE). The NABNE is the only licensing and regulatory board authorized to license NDs in the United States, and currently 19 states and the District of Columbia require naturopathic doctors to be fully licensed before they can practice within the boundaries of the state or jurisdiction.

In order to become fully licensed NDs must pass the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Exam (NPLEX). The exam consists of three parts covering biomedical science, core clinical science and clinical elective modalities. Passing the NPLEX is a critical step in becoming a naturopathic physician, and without this certification it will be impossible to practice naturopathic medicine in most states. Keep in mind that some states and jurisdictions may require additional licensing or certification before you can set up practice, and it is always wise to check with your state’s regulatory commission to ensure that you meet all necessary requirements as determined by the local legislature.

Your Career in Naturopathic Medicine

Once you are fully certified by the NABNE, and have been licensed by your state, it will be time to embrace your career as a naturopathic doctor. Some NDs choose to open their own private practices, acting as primary family care physicians. Others enter the workforce via multi-disciplinary clinics or by partnering with other holistic healthcare providers such as chiropractors or acupuncturists.However you choose to begin your professional career, you should consider becoming a participating member one of the many national associations of naturopathic healthcare professionals.

Organizations like the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians and the Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians advocate for greater understanding and acceptance of holistic and natural based medicine, and work to improve the industry through research and education. Becoming a member of one or more of the these organizations not only benefits you as a healer, but benefits naturopathic healthcare professionals throughout the country.

As a naturopathic physician you will be treating patients from all walks of life. It will be your responsibility to diagnose their ailments, assess their physical and mental well-being, and weigh the environmental and behavioral pressures that may have compromised their health. Through the binding of modern science to the understanding of traditional and holistic healing techniques you will relieve your patients’ suffering and guide them to a healthier and happier future.