The Future of Naturopathic Medicine: To Divide or Unite?

Insights from the recent summit on the Future of Naturopathic Medicine

By Sarah Bedell Cook, ND

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The naturopathic profession in the United States stands at a crossroads. With more than 78 separate organizations representing fragments of an already small community of naturopathic doctors (NDs), a perceived chasm in the profession has emerged.

On the one side are those who adhere to the vitalistic roots of naturopathic medicine. They champion the philosophies taught by the early founders of naturopathy and approach clinical practice in line with these ideals.

On the other side are those who embrace some aspects of modern conventional medicine. Exemplifying the extreme end of this fraction are NDs who practice in a medical setting where they are expected to prescribe drugs, surgeries, and immunizations routinely.

Whether the rift within the naturopathic profession is real or imagined is still up for debate. That question—as well as what to do about it—inspired a profession-wide conversation that began in the summer of 2018 and culminated in a summit on the Future of Naturopathic Medicine in August of 2019.

Spearheaded by Maggi Beeson, ND, the summit process invited members and leaders from every organization that has a stake in the future of naturopathic medicine. The process was hosted by the Naturopathic Medicine Collaborative (NMC), a neutral organizing body.

The Naturopathic Medicine Collaborative

The NMC was one of the first initiatives of the Institute for Natural Medicine (INM), when the INM relaunched in 2013. The NMC is a 501c3 nonprofit organization with goals to develop breakthrough philanthropic funding and to identify how that funding can best advance the naturopathic profession.

Some of the outcomes the NMC has identified as priorities in the profession are:

  • ND licensure in all 50 states
  • Increased public awareness
  • Increased partnerships with other healthcare professionals
  • An expanded research database
  • Increased residency access

The NMC supports activities aimed at facilitating a thriving naturopathic profession.

The NMC is truly a collaborative effort, as their stakeholder organizations include the Naturopathic Medical Students Association (NMSA), Association of Accredited Naturopathic Colleges (AANMC), Naturopathic Medicine Institute (NMI), AANP, and others.

A Year of Data Collection

When the summit planning process on the Future of Naturopathic Medicine kicked off in 2018, it was led by a planning team from the NMC (representing its many stakeholders) and a vision team consisting of Maggi Beeson, ND; Jeana Kimball, ND; Michelle Simon, ND; and Laura Farr.

After a kick-off meeting at the 2018 AANP annual convention, the NMC hosted a series of 3 online discussions that were open to all licensed NDs and students. These conversations involved more than 700 participants and yielded hundreds of pages of opinions, ideas, and insights.

The NMC planning team reviewed the data and came up with 5 initiatives to guide action into the future. Those initiatives gave structure to a culminating event: The Future of Naturopathic Medicine Summit.

A Day of Collaboration

Open to all licensed NDs and students, the Future of Naturopathic Medicine Summit was held one day before the 2019 AANP conference at the Oregon Convention Center. With a theme of “Many Parts, One Heart,” the summit marked a day of reflection and planning for a collaborative future.

Participants at the summit broke into 5 groups—each representing one of the key initiatives identified through the summit process:

  • A more unified identity
  • Education reform
  • A culture of collaboration
  • Expanded research
  • Professional opportunities & graduate success

Each group spent the afternoon discussing the desired outcomes, tensions, resources, and actions to achieve future success for each initiative. Participants brainstormed their ideas on sticky notes, which numbered more than 500 by the end of the day.

Facilitators guided group conversations and documented ideas from the day on large posters through the convention hall meeting room. “There was such a spirit of collaboration in the room,” said INM President, Michelle Simon, ND. “I feel hopeful that this energy will help drive these initiatives forward.”

A Future of Plans and Action

The 2019 Future of Naturopathic Medicine Summit ended with the formation of action committees to represent each of the 5 initiatives.

Members from each group stood in front of the meeting hall to deliver summaries of what they accomplished that day. They also shared action items for their committees to accomplish in the upcoming year. Following are brief recaps of their suggestions.

Unified Identity

Look to the many naturopathic organizations that already have mission statements, position papers, and explanatory paragraphs about what it means to be a naturopathic doctor.

Education Reform

Find ways to reinfuse vitalism into the education and clinical training of all NDs.

Culture of Collaboration

Nurture a culture of plenty rather than scarcity and train board members of individual organizations to promote a culture of diversity and collaborative efforts.

Expanded Research

Develop evidence-based research standards for the naturopathic profession and encourage research in areas that represent every part of the therapeutic order.

Professional Opportunities & Graduate Success

Take action to fund residency programs and licensure across the United States.

Share Your Voice on the Future of Naturopathic Medicine

Concerned members of the naturopathic medicine community worry that the ideological differences between fractions may never resolve. The fear is that the profession will either divide or lose its identity to merge with mainstream medicine.

Leaders of the NMC take a different view. According to Simon, their vision is “to collaborate on a large scale and create a rising tide that raises all boats.” The NMC aims to facilitate communication and collaboration to bring the naturopathic profession into a unified and thriving future.

The profession is coordinating action teams and developing a stewardship council to oversee the plans, which will facilitate a more unified naturopathic profession. If you are interested in learning more or participating in these efforts, contact Michelle Simon, ND.

About the Author

Sarah Cook, ND, is a medical writer and a copywriter for the integrative medical community. She holds a Naturopathic Doctorate from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, a certificate in biomedical writing, a professional diploma in digital marketing, and she is a StoryBrand Certified guide. Sarah writes website copy, email campaigns, e-books, and other marketing materials—helping clinicians and small business owners create authentic marketing messages to reach more of the people who need them most. Connect with Sarah at www.ndpen.com