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  • Writer's pictureDr. Karly McMaster, ND

Do Naturopathic Doctors Go To Medical School?

Did you know that naturopathic doctors are fully trained in the diagnosis and treatment of most medical conditions? The fundamental principles of naturopathic medicine include treating the root cause of disease, and often naturopathic doctors (NDs) see patients for chronic concerns like autoimmune diseases, inflammation, pain, hormone imbalances, and more. We also aim to prevent progression to further disease such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, etc. Not only are we able to order standard lab work for diagnosis and management of medical conditions, but our education includes a variety of modalities such as herbal medicine, clinical nutrition, acupuncture, physical medicine, IV therapy and pharmaceuticals, and homeopathy. Keep reading to learn more about the education process of naturopathic doctors!

Academic & Clinical curriculum

Naturopathic medical school admission requires a bachelor’s degree (4 years) from an accredited post-secondary institution with life science pre-requisites upon entrance to the program. There are currently only six accredited naturopathic medical schools in North America; two of which are in Canada. Each 4-year, full-time program is slightly different, but all graduates are required to pass the same standardized licensing exams (NPLEX) and any further jurisdictional board exams where they intend on practicing. Naturopathic medical school takes a holistic approach to learning, much like the grounding principles of medicine. Academic curriculum includes approximately 4,800 hours of class and preceptor learning and approximately 1,200 hours of clinical education, which culminates the professional Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine designation. Academics are based around a system-approach where the focus is cohesive between anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, diagnostics, and pharmacology. Furthermore, students learn all the modalities of naturopathic medicine to guide their clinical management with courses in nutrition, herbal medicine, traditional Asian medicine and acupuncture, homeopathy, physical medicine, and counselling.

Licensing Exams

After graduation from an accredited naturopathic institution, graduates are required to successfully pass the NPLEX (Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examinations), which are the standardized licensing exams for North American naturopathic doctors. NPLEX I is the first licensing exam that focuses in all biomedical sciences (biology, chemistry, biochemistry, anatomy, pathology, etc.) and may be taken after completion of the biomedical coursework at an accredited naturopathic institution (generally after the second year of the medical program). NPLEX II is a 3-day series of exams focused in the clinical sciences (diagnostics, herbal medicine, homeopathy, nutrition, physical medicine, emergency medicine) with additional elective exams in acupuncture, pharmacology, and minor surgery. These exams may be taken after successful completion of NPLEX I and graduation from an accredited naturopathic institution.

Board Exams

In British Columbia, ND's are required to have successfully completed NPLEX I and II, and successfully completed the BC jurisdictional practical board exams governed by CNPBC (College of Naturopathic Physicians of BC). These exams are comprised of practical examination of each candidate’s ability in diagnostic’s and management of disease, physical examination skills, emergency medical skills, physical medicine, and naturopathic manipulation (similar to “chiropractic’s”), as well as the jurisprudence written exam. Only after completion of these exams can a candidate apply to the college for licensing, use the “ND” designation and practice medicine.

Continuing Education

ND's in BC are required to complete 40 hours of continuing education every two years, which can be obtained various approved courses. Continuing education ensures doctors are up to date on the latest research and available treatment options.

Naturopathic Practice

Naturopathic doctors don’t have “specialties” like gastroenterology because one of our principles is to treat the whole person. Every individual is a complex being and the same condition can present very differently in different people. For a condition like Celiac disease, many people may originally present with only digestive concerns, but for others, they may experience migraines, anxiety, depression, skin irritation, joint pain, etc. Autoimmune conditions are complex and chronic in nature, so it’s crucial that a thorough history is taken and a treatment plan is established that is going to lead each person forward in their journey to health.

An initial consultation with a naturopathic doctor is typically 1-hour long and includes a full medical history, review of previous lab work, and any indicated physical exams. Because the visit is longer than a standard medical doctor’s appointment, it allows the ND to address all the pieces of each person’s puzzle and helps to determine the best individualized treatment plan for that specific person’s needs. The consultation allows enough time for the patient to truly be heard so the doctor and patient can work together in creating the best plan, and also empowers the patient to be a part of their own health care team.

Personal Experience

As challenging as naturopathic medical school was, I am so happy with my decision to pursue this profession. Learning in the cohort model meant you started and finished 4 years of schooling with the same group of roughly 30 people. It also meant that you got to know your instructors and clinical supervisors on a deeper level. These people were my support network, my motivation, and continue to inspire me to keep learning as a doctor. Overall, I consider it to be a privilege to be a naturopathic doctor; to listen to people's stories, and to be a part of their healing journey.

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