Naturopath vs. Naturopathic Physician

By Dr. Sharon Gurm, BSc, ND, Naturopathic Physician, Clinic Founder & Clinical Director

I think it’s about time I got around to writing this. Certainly my staff knows how I feel whenever I’m referred to as a “naturopath”. Every time I hear that, my reflexive response is:

“I’m not a naturopath….I’m a naturopathic physician.”

“I never knew there was a difference” most will say.

Actually, there are several distinguishing factors that everyone should know about. The quality of your health care depends on it.

The Evolution of Naturopathic Medicine

“Naturopath” was a term used to describe the early pioneers of naturopathy dating back to the early 1900’s, long before accredited naturopathic medical schools were established. This pioneering group of people began the practice of viewing the person as a “whole” and healing the body through natural means, rather than just treating the disease. A naturopath typically used alternative natural healing therapies, medicinals, herbs, food, homeopathics, and techniques such as hydrotherapy.

While these modalities and the inherent philosophy of “nature cure” is still an integral part of (what is now known as) naturopathic medicine – the field has evolved considerably. Since the mid-to-late 1900’s, mounting research supports the science behind treatments like nutritional medicine, botanical medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, prolotherapy, homeopathy, physical medicine, mind-body medicine, and other therapeutic interventions. Clinical research in large population studies demonstrates the multitude of benefits in disease prevention – and the management and treatments that come with adopting a healthcare model that blends conventional and naturopathic medical disciplines.

Naturopathic Physicians Forge the Way in British Columbia

In British Columbia, only licensed naturopathic doctors or naturopathic physicians – regulated by the College of Naturopathic Physicians of BC (CNPBC) – are qualified to practice naturopathic medicine. This is a critical distinction: the title naturopathic physician/doctor is reserved only for licensed naturopathic doctors (NDs). It qualifies NDs in BC as primary care physicians who have met and maintain a high standard of safe, efficacious and quality medical practices.

In the modern field of naturopathic medicine in BC, where NDs must achieve advanced academic credentials and meet strict criteria to practice as primary care doctors, NDs are granted the widest scope of practice of any province, allowing us to practice both conventional and naturopathic treatments as needed for our patients.

As primary care physicians, we are medically qualified to conduct physical examinations (including screening exams such as pelvic, prostate and breast exams, as well perform clinical assessments and tests if needed, then make a diagnosis and prescribe treatments (natural treatments and/or pharmaceutical). Just like MDs, we triage our patients to determine if treatment or attention is required that is outside of our scope of practice or capabilities and take the appropriate course of action – initiate emergent care or send the patient to their GP for a specialist referral.

On the other hand, the term “naturopath,” or “natural doctor,” or any other variation on the aforementioned titles in BC indicates the person is likely not a licensed ND – and therefore not qualified to practice as a primary care physician. In fact, anyone bearing little or no medical qualifications at all can use the title “naturopath” or “natural doctor” (yes, I repeat: ANYONE!).

These individuals are not regulated by the CNPBC are thus are not upheld to the high standard of practice regulations and ongoing requirements mandated by the CNPBC. These unlicensed individuals can, however treat the public with natural remedies that are available without prescription.

If you decide to engage in treatment with an unlicensed and/or unqualified practitioner, not only do you minimize the level of care you should expect to receive from a naturopathic physician, you run the risk of jeopardizing your health and safety by seeing a practitioner that is unregulated and not held to the same standards as naturopathic physicians.

What Does it Take to Become a Naturopathic Physician in BC?

As naturopathic physicians, many of us have obtained a Bachelor of Science degree (or equivalent) and we have all completed a 4-5 year post-graduate program from an accredited institution in North America to acquire a Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine (ND). Accredited naturopathic medical programs deliver a rigorous academic curriculum, teaching the same core medical sciences as taught by conventional medical schools.

In addition to the standard medical training we receive, we learn how to view the systems of health and disease individually and collectively, following the principles of whole-person medicine. We learn the science and clinical application of various medical disciplines – both Western and Eastern approaches – such as pharmacology, botanical medicine, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine and nutrition, so that we can practice an integrative model of health care.

Before being granted a license to practice in BC, NDs must have successfully passed all North American and Provincial board exams. In order to maintain our license, we are required to meet annual continuing education (CE) requirements. For NDs holding specific board-certified qualifications, additional modules, examinations and annual CE requirements must be met for each board certification acquired beyond the standard medical license. Additional board certifications include prolotherapy, acupuncture, oxidative therapies, intravenous and chelation therapies and prescribing authority.

How Do Naturopathic Physicians Practice Health Care?

Our clinical practices embrace research-informed, science or evidence-based medicine. We identify the factors contributing to disease using a whole-person view that considers a multitude of factors impacting a person’s health. These factors include lifestyle, diet, nutrition, stress, mental-emotional state, as well as genetic and environmental (or toxic) influences.

This is coupled with a systems-based assessment that analyzes the functional status and interplay between the biological systems of the body – the hormonal (endocrine) system, digestive system, circulatory system, immune system, nervous system and musculo-skeletal system. Our guiding principles in naturopathic medicine honor the body’s healing capability and aim to restore balance to these systems.

We use a personalized medicine approach that begins with removing the barriers to healing (based on the identified factors mentioned above) and addressing the foundational elements of health (diet and lifestyle), incorporating other interventions and therapies as needed to match the chronicity and complexity of the case.

What You Can Expect From Me

My personal academic portfolio includes a 4-year Bachelor of Science degree in Cell Biology & Genetics from the University of British Columbia (UBC), a 5-year research position at the BC Cancer Agency, followed by a 4-year Doctorate program at CCNM, along with several board-certifications since obtaining my license to practice medicine.

Since I hold all five board certifications mentioned above, I am required to meet the maximum continuing education requirement for a naturopathic physician in BC. Not that I mind. Why would I? The research in integrative medicine is evolving at a rapid pace and I want to be as current as possible in my clinical skills and knowledge to offer the best care possible to my patients.

Providing a thorough and comprehensive health assessment takes time, which is why I typically spend an hour in my initial visit with a patient. I ask a lot of questions to learn the full scope of your health concerns, past and present health status, family health history, and your lifestyle and dietary habits. I learn what preferences you may have regarding treatment, which is especially important in cancer care8. I give room for patients to ask their questions and take the time to inform, educate and offer literature that supports my recommendations for your care. I suggest diagnostic testing as necessary to clarify the clinical picture and help navigate the path for a personalized treatment plan using a multi-modal approach (i.e.: dietary recommendations and additional therapies as appropriate).

Medicine, and integrative cancer care in particular, is my life’s purpose. When you follow your purpose, it’s not work – it’s a passion and a commitment to serve humanity. I became a physician to dedicate myself to the practice and advancement of medicine. This includes a personal mandate to educate the public, medical students and professionals; to contribute to medical journals; and to remain active in research to advance the field of naturopathic and integrative medicine.

By now it should be pretty clear as to the distinction between a “naturopath” and a naturopathic physician, and why that distinction is so important to me. That knowledge can have a profound impact on your treatment and care, should you decide to take an integrative approach to your health and well-being.

I welcome an opportunity to meet with you and discuss your health care questions, assess your needs, and apply only the most appropriate treatments needed to improve your health.

Dr. Sharon Gurm BSc, ND, Naturopathic Physician, Clinic Founder & Clinical Director
Port Moody Health

Dr. Gurm, BSc, ND, Naturopathic Physician, Clinic Founder & Clinical Director is the Clinical Director and founder of Port Moody Health. As a physician, speaker, educator and researcher Dr. Gurm has a clinical focus on integrative cancer care, autoimmune disorders, chronic diseases, hormone imbalance and chronic pain. Dr. Gurm is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in whole-person integrative health care. To book an appointment with Dr. Gurm, please call (604) 949-0077.

Leave a reply