The Naturopathic Education and Research Consortium (NERC) is a small nonprofit organization making a big impact on the future of naturopathic medicine. Dedicated to increasing postgraduate residency and training opportunities for naturopathic doctors, NERC work has been with clinics across the country to provide official residencies for naturopathic physicians since 2005. Founded by Tori Hudson, ND, and Margaret Beeson, ND, NERC partners with clinics from Maine to Hawaii to create one- and two-year residency opportunities for new naturopathic doctors (NDs).
While students of naturopathic medicine are required to complete as many as 1,500 hours of clinical training in medical school,1 few formal opportunities exist after graduation to help new NDs continue to learn and grow professionally. In the mid-1990s, both Hudson and Beeson enjoyed the benefits of hosting residents in their clinics and saw a clear need for official and approved residency opportunities.
Before the founding of NERC, two schools—the National College of Natural Medicine (NCNM) and Bastyr University—provided no more than eight positions for resident NDs, and those positions existed in only two or three locations. NERC’s collaboration with practitioners, clinics, schools, sponsors, and residents has created nine off-campus sites nationwide in which residents continue to train under professional supervision in conjunction with residency programs approved by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME).2 In 2011, NERC will facilitate 12 off-campus residencies.
“Residencies are crucial to the advancement of our profession in terms of insurance reimbursement and loan repayment,at the very least. More importantly, graduates need paid opportunities to hone their skills in a supervised setting with seasoned naturopaths who can support and educate beyond medical school,” Beeson explains. “These types of relationships are the foundation for passing on the wisdom of medicine as both art and science.”
Besides the clinical competencies they bestow, residencies also foster community connections for clinics, doctors, and patients. Because CNME-approved residencies emphasize integrative medicine, NERC clinics bring together practitioners and clients seeking conventional and complementary health solutions. For evidence of the roles residents play in their practices and communities—and community appreciation for those roles—consider a recent resident experience at Seattle’s Institute of Complementary Medicine (ICM). Eileen Stretch, ND, of ICM reflects on a very positive integrative residency experience:
With support from NERC, we were able to employ JanciKarp, ND, LAc, as a resident for two years. During that time, Karp provided both naturopathic and acupuncture services to our patients, educated the community with a variety of talks and workshops, and built a successful practice of her own within our office. While a resident she rotated through a variety of medical practices, which benefited her education and also benefited the practitioners with whom she worked by being exposed to naturopathic medicine. [Just] six months out of her residency, Karp was selected as a “Top Doctor” by Seattle Metropolitan Magazine…This is evidence of the success of her residency, as she was voted by physicians in the community for this honor.
Michael Traub of Ho’o Lokahi clinic in Kailua Kona, HI, also praises the NERC model, saying the residency program improves the services his clinic can offer the community:
Having a resident helps …increase patient care services through the resident’s private practice hours and clinical skill set; provide coverage for my patients when I am out of town; provide assistance for clinical research projects conducted at the clinic; give educational lectures to the public; and volunteer at a variety of health fairs and events, including senior health fairs, free skin cancer screenings, and the Ironman Triathlon World Championship.
Without NERC’s role as facilitator, doctors and students must organize residencies or mentorship opportunities on their own, and the clinic or practitioner must come up with funding for the resident’s salary. And if the residency is to be official, the clinic must have staff on hand to interact with one of the CNME-approved residency programs. All this strains the limits of what small practices can often accomplish. By joining the consortium, partner clinics benefit from NERC’s network of funders and practitioners, relationships with sponsors, and administrative contacts with residency oversight bodies.
At its core, NERC provides member clinics with direct funding for residencies. This support is possible thanks to NERC’s relationships with companies whose natural products NERC clinics dispense. “Sponsors fund our community-based residencies. Without them, we would not have NERC,” says Beeson. To this end, NERC seeks out corporate partners that share NERC’s commitment to advance the practice and promise of naturopathic medicine. Sponsors are companies with whom member clinics already have relationships, not unknown companies that approach NERC looking for a distribution outlet.
Beeson points out that many supplement companies “are founded and run by NDs who value the concept of residencies and furthering the profession.” Such professionals bring proven commitment to the “profession and to the principles of naturopathic medicine.” By approaching companies whose products are already in use in NERC clinics, or whose products or services are of interest to the NERC clinic network, the consortium creates a powerful microeconomy in which effective products can be discounted and clinical capabilities can be improved and enhanced by bringing residents into the clinic and community.
Looking ahead, NERC's ambition is to help make residencies possible for all naturopathic graduates.
Looking ahead, NERC’s ambition is to help make residencies possible for all naturopathic graduates. Asked about the future, Hudson offers NERC’s vision statement: A healthcare system where naturopathic physicians are optimally educated and prepared for clinical practice; patients are able to become healthier by working with highly skilled clinicians; naturopathic physicians are able to contribute the full scope of their training to all communities, age groups, and socioeconomic classes; and naturopathic physicians have many more job opportunities.
Beeson looks to her and Hudson’s own experiences to postulate about NERC’s potential. “I studied with Dr. Bastyr, and Dr. Hudson studied with Dr. Turska. Through the NERC residency program, we have the opportunity to pass the core principles of the naturopathic art on to the next generation of physicians, and that’s very exciting.”