Next fall, the Maryland University of Integrative Health in North Laurel will open the Mid-Atlantic's first school of naturopathic medicine, training its first professionals in this field of alternative medicine.
But what exactly is a naturopathic doctor, and what does one do? Elizabeth Pimentel, dean of the school and a naturopathic doctor herself, explains what patients need to know.
What is naturopathic medicine?
Naturopathic medicine focuses on prevention, treatment and whole-person health, according to Pimentel, and emphasizes the innate wisdom of the body and the healing power of nature.
"Naturopathic doctors use a variety of natural and conventional substances and therapeutic methods that encourage individuals' inherent self-healing process," Pimentel says. The field uses therapies like clinical nutrition, botanical medicine, stress management and counseling, among others.
How does it differ from conventional medicine?
"Both naturopathic doctors and conventionally trained doctors are grounded in the same biomedical sciences and Western understanding of disease, diagnosis and physical examination," Pimentel says.
But there are plenty of distinguishing factors. For one, naturopathic doctors work primarily in outpatient settings, though you'll find some in hospitals and other inpatient settings, Pimentel says. They also spend a lot of time getting to know patients up front.
Naturopathic doctors "typically spend an hour or more for a first visit in order to thoroughly understand the patient and the various aspects that contribute to their state of health, risk factors or disease, and to develop a treatment plan," she says.
And because naturopathic practitioners put stock in the role emotions and mindset play in a person's health, "patients often feel listened to and validated in their visits, which contributes positively to their overall health," Pimentel says. "In many cases, the office visit itself can feel like a treatment."
Why might a patient go to a naturopathic doctor?
Naturopathic medicine can be a primary treatment for acute and chronic health conditions — ranging from sprains and seasonal allergies to heart disease, hypertension and diabetes — a complement to conventional medical care or a preventive measure.
"Naturopathic doctors recognize the body as an ever-changing system where organs do not perform in isolation, but are part of an intricate, interrelated system that must be addressed as a whole," Pimentel says.
What treatment might a naturopathic doctor prescribe, compared to a medical doctor?
"Naturopathic doctors follow a therapeutic order that begins with the least invasive therapy first," Pimentel explains.
That means treatment plans often include lifestyle changes like breathing techniques or dietary recommendations, along with herbal or nutrient prescriptions, homeopathic remedies or mindfulness exercises.
Depending on the complexity or severity of a patient's condition, a naturopathic doctor may refer them to a medical specialist (like a cardiologist), another integrative health practitioner (an acupuncturist, for example) or the patient's primary care provider, Pimentel says.
What's the need for this program in the Mid-Atlantic region?
"Naturopathic medicine has long thrived in the western U.S. and New England, where naturopathic doctors are an integral part of health care," Pimentel says.
Nineteen states, including Maryland, and Washington, D.C. license naturopathic practitioners, and that number is growing. Pimentel says licensure and the School of Naturopathic Medicine will attract more to the area.
"Naturopathic doctors excel in preventing and treating chronic diseases," she says. "Our school will prepare students for naturopathic practice, addressing healthcare needs in communities and contributing to a healthier Maryland."