JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
How do you know your doctor is legitimate? The letters behind his or her name – MD – are generally a trustworthy signal. Under current law in Colorado, however, anybody can claim to be a Doctor of Naturopathy regardless of education history or training.
Naturopathy is a branch of alternative medicine that avoids invasive surgery and synthetic drugs. Instead, it calls upon herbs, vitamins, massage, diet changes and lifestyle counseling to facilitate the body’s “innate healing” abilities.
“The human body, when you give it what it needs, will reward you,” said Nancy Utter, a naturopathic doctor with Durango Natural Medicine. “I have complete and total faith in that. My patients are living proof.”
Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia have passed legislation licensing naturopaths, but in Colorado, advocates have come up empty handed. It isn’t for lack of trying.
Since 1994, the Colorado Association of Naturopathic Doctors has proposed licensure bills seven different times, most recently in February 2011. Details vary from year to year, but the goal remains the same: clarifying the credentials needed to call oneself a naturopathic doctor.
In the 2011 edition, House Bill 11-1173, criteria included a bachelor’s degree, a post-graduate naturopathy degree from a four-year, Department of Education-accredited institution, at least 1,200 hours of supervised clinical training and completion of board exams.
Just five schools in the United States meet these requirements.
Like all previous attempts, the bill came up short, failing on a 7-6 party-line vote in the House Health and Environment Committee. State Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, cast his vote with the majority despite earlier indications he was supportive.
When asked for comment, he said divisive testimony in committee hearings led him to believe licensure wasn’t appropriate until greater consensus is found.
It could be a long wait, if history is any lesson.
Among those opposed to licensure is the American Medical Association and its state affiliates, which lobby on behalf of conventional physicians. Colorado’s chapter, the Colorado Medical Society, believes licensing naturopaths as doctors wrongly endorses pseudoscience and allows them to prescribe and treat beyond their capabilities, according to a statement from CEO Alfred Gilchrist.
The Colorado Coalition for Natural Health opposes licensure for different reasons but with equal resolve. The coalition worries natural healers without the state-mandated credentials would be put out of business.
“They keep saying the bills are innocuous, but they’re after a monopoly,” said Shauna Young, owner of Assertive Wellness in Durango and an advisory board member of the coalition. Young holds a Doctor of Naturopathy degree from the Herbal Healer Academy, a correspondence school based in Arkansas, and was awarded a doctorate in Natural Sciences from the University of Natural Medicine in Santa Fe for her research on autism. Neither are members of federally endorsed accrediting bodies.
By mandating a license and restricting eligibility to only a handful of schools, Young thinks graduates from the “big five” are creating a sweet deal for themselves at the expense of all other practitioners.
“Think of the overflow of clients. Prices would skyrocket,” she said.
Joanie Coffey, president of the coalition, agrees.
“I’ve been fighting this monopolistic legislation for the past 20 years. They’re after exclusionary control over the natural-health community. Anytime you’re in it for a win-lose outcome, somebody will lose,” she said. “Which is fine, because they’ve lost every round.”
An intractable impasse?
Louise Edwards, a naturopathic doctor who in the 1990s helped legitimize the field in Durango, doesn’t buy this argument. In her view, nobody will lose if licensure is passed.
“It’s a false argument and a distraction,” she said. “It’s much easier to derail legislation than pass it.”
The 2011 bill contained a clause protecting nonlicensed practitioners’ right to advise clients about the use of herbal medicine, homeopathy, nutrition and other nondrug/nonsurgical therapies as long as they do not represent themselves as naturopathic doctors.
“The distinction we’re looking for is the word ‘doctor,’” Edwards said. “It would just mean those folks would have to call themselves something different, like a naturopathic healer or traditional naturopath.”
Young now refers to herself as a certified traditional naturopath.
Former state Rep. Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley, was a sponsor of H.B. 11-1173. He supports licensure for consumer-protection reasons and said infighting between naturopaths muddied the waters during committee testimony.
“I never did understand it myself. The opponents were able to create a lot of hysteria (that jobs would be lost),” he said. “And once (legislators) are convinced of something, you can’t unconvince them.”
Across the board, Durango naturopaths who studied at Department of Education accredited schools strongly favor licensure.
“For me, the licensure debate is not about turf, not about modality preference and not about money,” Utter said. “It’s about clarity for patients and their peace of mind.”
Jennifer Letellier, a naturopathic doctor with Be Well Family Medicine, echoed this perspective. “The patient needs to know what they’re getting into,” she said.
Given the projected 45,000 shortfall nationwide in primary-care doctors by 2020, Letellier said, naturopathic doctors are poised to help: “It’s what we’re trained for – nutrition advice, physical exams, IV therapy, minor incisions. Primary care is our specialty, if the state will allow us.”
Amita Nathwani, a certified Ayurveda therapist, concurred with the naturopaths.
“I support licensure even though I have nothing to gain from it,” she said. “Some of the best healers I know were trained informally, but they don’t claim to be doctors. The bottom line is transparency. Don’t pretend or inflate your knowledge beyond what it is.”
The long-running political battle isn’t over. Licensure advocates are regrouping and plan to continue pursuing legislation.
“The naturopathic community is tenacious. There’s obviously some discouragement when we keep trying and failing,” Utter said. “But I don’t think we’re going away.”