By: Danielle Wojtak, NMS4
Chronic illnesses affect 6 in 10 US adults in the United States and represent a major financial portion of the healthcare system (CDC). Chronic illness is generally defined as a condition that lasts over a year and requires ongoing medical care, and they include conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many others. One important aspect of these conditions is that they require ongoing care and treatment from the medical system, which can heavily cost the healthcare system, but prevention and lifestyle changes can lower the burden on the healthcare system. The utility of prevention and lifestyle changes is that people will be less likely to get diseases in the first place. This realm of prevention and lifestyle changes is where Naturopathic Medicine shines, but naturopathic medicine also is useful in the treatment of diseases beyond just prevention and lifestyle changes. Naturopathic medicine is a system of medicine that draws from both conventional medical practices and current standard of care, as well as from traditional health practices from around the world. Naturopathic doctors rely on a mixture of studies, case reports, and historical information as a backbone of an evidence-based practice of medicine. Unfortunately for many aspects of traditional medicine, there is a lack of research-driven data to prove the effectiveness. Therefore, it is important for naturopathic doctors to also utilize historical documents from traditional forms of medicine. However, that does not diminish the utility or effectiveness of many traditional medical practices, and naturopathic doctors honor these traditions and attempt to use them in treatment plans.
Naturopathic medical care is driven by six key principles. These principles are “first do no harm”, “the healing power of nature”, “identify and treat the causes”, “doctor as teacher”, “treat the whole person”, and “prevention” (AANMC.org). Not harming patients forms the central tenancy of most medical disciplines today, and is easily recognizable. The healing power of nature is a unique aspect of naturopathic medicine. No other healthcare system in the world identifies and articulates the need to respect and honor the role of nature in the practice of healthcare. Naturopathic doctors also attempt to discover and treat the underlying cause of the patient’s illness to deal with the cause which should resolve the patient’s symptoms. Symptoms of the illness are often more concerning for patients and affect daily life more than the underlying condition. However, by dealing with the underlying cause of the patient’s condition, the symptoms can also be dealt with. This also influences treating the whole person, which relies on understanding what is the cause of the patient’s condition and treating every condition that the person may be dealing with. Naturopathic doctors understand that patients are more than just their symptoms or illnesses. They are whole people that need to be treated as such. Also, the body is an organism made up of multiple different systems working together. One system rarely becomes ill without also affecting other systems. These other systems may also need to be addressed in the treatment plan while dealing with another system’s problem. Doctor as a teacher is another important tenet of naturopathic medicine. Doctors are often in positions where they are making decisions for patients or presenting options that the patient must choose from. For patients to be able to make informed decisions decide between multiple options, they must be well educated on those options. Naturopathic doctors honor this and work with patients to help them understand their illness, the different treatment options, and other various aspects of medicine and body. Lastly, the prevention of illness is important for both individuals and the medical system. By preventing serious illnesses and diseases, patients are more likely to live long and healthy lives. These six principles drive naturopathic medicine practice, but they are not the only important aspects of naturopathic medicine.
As discussed earlier, naturopathic medicine draws from a wide variety of healing practices, and naturopathic doctors are trained in a wide range of treatment modalities, or tools, which they utilize for patients. These modalities include diet, lifestyle, supplements, homeopathy, and physical medicine, to name a few. This wide range of treatment modalities allows naturopathic doctors to find a combination of treatments that best help patients. This can offer hope to patients dealing with chronic illnesses who experience frustration and discontent within the conventional medical model. It can also provide help and support to those who are finding relief in the conventional medical model but still experiencing symptoms of their chronic illnesses or side effects from the treatments. With chronic illnesses and other conditions, naturopathic doctors recognize the need to work with patients to figure out a treatment plan that will work best for the patient. Not every patient experiences relief from the same modality or can adhere to the same treatment plan. Naturopathic doctors recognize this and start every treatment plan by figuring out where the patient is on their journey and what patients feel the most motivation and willingness to try. Seeing the patient as a person with a holistic perspective helps practitioners effectively treat patients in a way that helps the individual patient. Naturopathic doctors recognize that people are often more than the illness that they are dealing with and must be treated as such. Each patient has modalities that they are most drawn to and willing to try, and naturopathic doctors work with patients to figure out a treatment plan that honors that.
Having a doctor trained in a variety of modalities also allows patients to only visit one doctor to receive all the treatments in one visit or at least one location. Instead of visiting one practitioner for each different treatment modality, patients can receive exercise advice, diet and nutrition information, and even physical manipulation from one practitioner instead of going to three different providers. Many naturopathic doctors also work in integrated practices with other complementary healthcare providers, so even if the naturopathic doctor cannot provide a specific treatment modality, there are often others in the same location who can provide the treatment modality. In addition to the base information that all naturopathic doctors are taught, many naturopathic doctors increase their knowledge base by learning different modalities and using their continuing education requirements to learn new skills. This variety benefits patients, especially those dealing with chronic illnesses because patients can choose to go to a doctor who best fits their needs. These doctors may be trained in modalities like biofeedback, prolotherapy, and other treatment modalities that can be used to target different symptoms of chronic illnesses. Naturopathic doctors may choose to add specific modalities to their toolkits to target specific conditions, which benefits patients with those conditions. These doctors will often state somewhere on their profile that they have focused on certain conditions, which can be helpful to patients who may not know the different treatment modalities, but know that they want a naturopathic doctor on board who knows their condition.
Also, naturopathic doctors can play different roles in the patient’s care teams. In certain situations and states, naturopathic doctors can provide the role of a patient’s primary care doctor. This doctor is the person you go to for coordination of care and the main person you go to when you have health concerns. They coordinate care between different specialties and will make sure all treatment plans work together. In other situations and states, naturopathic doctors are more primed to provide the role of adjunctive care, where they work as part of a team with other medical professionals to provide optimal care to patients. This may look like going to a primary care or another specialist for continuing care of a condition, and going to a naturopathic doctor for help supporting side effects of different medications and treatments or suggesting other changes to help the other treatments be more effective. For example, a patient with rheumatoid arthritis will often have a rheumatologist as part of their care team, who will provide main care recommendations for the patient to help with the progression of the disease process. The patient may also see a naturopathic doctor who will help with lifestyle changes to help prevent the progression of the disease process, and provide treatment options to help with any side effects of pharmaceuticals that were recommended to the patient.
As you can see, naturopathic doctors provide a unique perspective to patients dealing with chronic illnesses. They can fill different positions in the care team due to their education in a wide array of modalities, which also allows them to create a unique treatment plan for each patient. If you or someone you care about is dealing with a chronic illness, consider adding a naturopathic doctor to your care team for well-rounded care and more options. Find a chronic illness specialist near me.