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What About Naturopathic Medicine?

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In late September, the White House Office of Public Engagement hosted a conference call about health care reform, inviting physicians all over the country to participate. I and about 2,700 others dialed in. Senior White House officials--including Tina Tchen, director of public engagement; Mike Hash, Senior Adviser in the Health and Human Services Office of Health Reform; and David Simas, policy adviser to David Axelrod--discussed the Obama administration's goals for making health care more affordable, accessible, and efficient. Their primary concerns:

• How do we reduce the overall cost of health care?
• How do we stop insurance companies' abusive practices?
• How do we make health care safer and more effective for patients?
• How can we expand the number of primary physicians in the country--particularly physicians willing to work with the uninsured?
• How do we give patients more control over their own care?

They mentioned their support for innovative care delivery models, such as a multidisciplinary approach, and their desire to reward physicians for positive outcomes in patients' health.

At the end of their remarks, they opened the line for 10 questions from listeners. I was among the 10 physicians who jumped onto their keypads fast enough.

Here's what I asked: What about naturopathic medicine?

Naturopathy offers the very kind of cost-effective, holistic, proactive treatment that the administration is looking for. It's the answer to most of their concerns. I and the nation's other naturopathic doctors are a large, underutilized population of practitioners with specialized training in preventing illness. We keep patients out of hospitals, and in the process we save lives--and millions of dollars.

The White House officials listened to my question. They responded that at present the administration's goals did not include promoting naturopathic medicine, "but they might certainly" use science-based inquiry to consider the merits of such an approach.

While we naturopathic doctors welcome more research into the quality of our care, there are already facts and figures available regarding its efficacy and cost.

Here's what policymakers need to know. All naturopathic physicians have earned four-year postgraduate degrees from accredited institutions. We are trained as primary care physicians to treat patients with safe and gentle disciplines such as homeopathic and botanical medicine, nutrition, massage, hydrotherapy, and acupuncture. We treat whole people--body, mind, and spirit--and not just diseases. Our fundamental beliefs are that disease happens to an entire body, not just one area of it, and that the body has an innate ability to heal itself and prevent disease if given proper support.

Naturopathic doctors and their patients work together as a team to help the patient make different choices and create better health habits. The word "doctor" comes from the Latin for "teacher," and we take this ancient association seriously, teaching people how to improve their health and quality of life through lifestyle changes. We pursue the root causes of illness, not just the symptoms.

Americans need more naturopathic medicine--badly. While technology advances and drugs grow ever more plentiful and expensive, our nation remains unhealthy and obese. Our children are more prone to diabetes and other long-term chronic illnesses than ever before. Naturopathic doctors set them on the path to health--often without the detour to the pharmacist's office.

USA Today reported recently that the average individual spends $47,000 per year on drugs, and that 51% of adults and children are taking prescription drugs for a chronic condition. Each of us receives an average of 12 prescriptions a year, adds NPR, and we spend $175 billion more per year on drugs than we did just 17 years ago. The department of Health and Human Services reported in 2004 that 1 in 6 people take 3 or more prescriptions daily.

We buy more medicine than any other country, and yet we remain chronically ill.

Perhaps this is why the number of Americans who have consulted naturopathic physicians--or used what has been called complementary medicine--has risen dramatically in the past two decades. Between 1991 and 1997, the use of herbal medicines in the United States grew by 380 percent; use of vitamin therapy grew 130 percent. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that in 1998, more than one third of adults had pursued some form of naturopathic medicine. Americans made 627 million visits to practitioners and spent $27 billion of their own money on naturopathic healing. Harvard Medical School estimated in 1997 that one out of every two people between 35 and 49 had used at least one form of complementary therapy.

The exponential growth of the industry continues. In 2007, Americans spent more than $34 billion on complementary medicine, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. And we're not the only ones who've discovered the benefits of naturopathy. Fifty-seven percent of the people in Australia, 46% of the people in Germany, and 49% of the people of France also use some form of naturopathic medicine.

Everybody knows that we need to make substantive changes in our health care system, but as we do, we need to add naturopathy to the plan for reform. It is not enough to talk about insurance companies and their unscrupulous tactics and policies. We need to talk about prevention, nutrition, and holistic care--practices that will keep people out of the hospital and the pharmacy. The American "sick care" system, as I call it, will continue to fail unless we complement it with what naturopathy has to offer.

A health care system--or rather a health promotion system--that utilizes educated, licensed, and accountable physicians of all types is crucial to solving our crises.

So I ask again: what about naturopathic medicine?

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