We view our health differently these days. We used to seek a doctor's advice on how to "fix" us, but in recent years many of us have been taking more responsibility for our own care. As more and more medical research is compiled and available to the public, we're starting to value what health we have. We can see the value in eating a healthy diet, getting enough exercise, and managing our stress. Though we understand their advantages, these things are difficult to implement and maintain on our own.
It's more than just willpower that determines whether we eat healthy, exercise regularly, and manage our stress well. Most of us have obstacles impeding our health in one way or another. And today's doctors have the task of helping us remove or negotiate these obstacles so we can care for ourselves to the best of our ability. Sometimes our obstacles are changeable, and other times they aren't.
In my last post, I explained who naturopathic doctors (NDs) are. Talking with people, I've found there's some confusion about why someone might go see a naturopathic doctor. In this post I'll address several reasons that bring patients through an ND's door.
In states where naturopathic care is fully covered by health insurance, people see NDs just like they would any family doctor, for annual exams and specific illnesses. In places where our services are only partially covered by insurance, or in places where patients pay for our services completely, they usually come when they feel their care is incomplete.
I don't intend to make the claim that we're the only health-care providers out there with this approach, but by and large, these are the reasons patients come to see us and what they like about what we do.
"I Know I Could Be Healthier"
My wife is a great example. She had chronic sinus infections and whenever a cold came around, she would get it. And it would knock her out. For a week and a half, sometimes two, she'd be coughing constantly to the point of fatigue. Her immune system was bullied by viruses. Her viral respiratory infections would lay the foundation for becoming infected with bacteria, and eventually she'd need antibiotics. While I was in school at Bastyr, she asked if there was anything that she could do so she wouldn't be sick all the time. Together, we went to see an ND at our teaching clinic.
My wife told the doctor about her long-standing sinus problems and how her respiratory infections over the years always ended up with her taking antibiotics. It turns out, in her lifetime (and my wife is nearly as young as she looks) she had taken nearly 50 courses of antibiotics. No wonder her immune system couldn't stand up for itself! It never had. She hated to be reliant on antibiotics, but she didn't know there was any alternative. Together with the ND, we came up with a plan to bolster her immunity.
It took some work, but gradually we saw her immune system strengthen. Her sinus infections became a thing of the past. When she'd get a cold her coughing and fatigue were no longer exhausting. And instead of being sick for 10 days or more, she'd only be ill for a week, then only five days. Now she hardly ever gets ill, even when handling loads of stress as a final-year veterinary student. When her classmates start to get under the weather, she has learned to listen to her body, support her immunity, and most colds to just blow right past her.
"I Have a Chronic Disease"
A lot of patients come in with a problem (or problems) they've had for years. Heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, allergies and digestive problems are the most common long-term conditions we see. These conditions are often responsive to changes in diet and specific lifestyle activities. By taking a close look at our patients' diets and other habits, NDs help them take the small steps that get big results over time.
Often chronic mood disorders like anxiety and depression may be managed effectively without pharmaceuticals, even for patients who've been on medication for years. By tailoring treatments to our patients' lives, and through careful monitoring, we see patients make changes they didn't know were possible. That said, the process of getting off medication takes time (and in some cases cannot be done safely). And of course, should not be done without consulting health-care professionals. (Please don't quit your meds today, call up a colleague in the morning, and mention you read this post!)
"My Medical Care Has Gaps"
The best health-care providers out there care for their patients as whole people. Our organs don't just live together, they work together. Each organ in our body relies on the others to maintain health. In good care we also have to consider our thoughts, emotions, habits and rituals, and the communities or environments where we live. All these things have their contribution to our health.
I think this kind of thinking is why patients sometimes say, "You guys seem to get the whole picture." To hear we haven't lost sight of our patient along our path to diagnosis and treatment is a sign we're doing what we've intended to do. People like some of that "old-fashioned" medicine, like attentive listening, counselling, and explanations. A lot of my colleagues, myself included, got into the field of medicine to bring some of those things back into the practice of modern health care. For many patients, their ND helps to bridge their medical care and their everyday life. When we take time to understand them, answer questions, and show how things are related, patients feel they are a partner in their health care, not merely a subject.
Another care gap NDs often fill is adjunctive cancer care. While we don't treat cancer (that's the job of oncologists and surgeons), we can be quite helpful for people while they are going through their cancer treatments. Surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation are hard on our bodies, they have to be to fight cancer. NDs can focus treatments to prevent healthy tissues in the body from being hit so hard. Preventing and treating "chemo brain," fatigue, and the disruption to the digestive tract are just some of the ways we can help someone going through cancer treatment.
"My Medical Care Just Hasn't Been Working For Me"
For people who come in under this category, naturopathic doctors are often their last hope. Generally they've exhausted treatment options from every "conventional" provider they've seen, or they've been told their diagnosis is "all in their head." Naturopathic doctors can't always help these patients, but when treatment works these cases are remarkable. These cases highlight the value of the therapeutic order NDs use.
In situations like these, instead of battling an illness very specifically, we take a few steps back, and treat more generally. By supporting health broadly, we give our bodies the chance to sort things out "on their own." Because these patients have yet to find anything that has helped them, they are often open to making big lifestyle changes such as dietary or environmental adaptations.
Like I said, we're not the only ones helping patients with a holistic approach, but these are the most common reasons for people to seek the care of naturopathic doctors.
Michael Stanclift, ND
Naturopathic Doctor - Carlsbad, California
*This post was originally published on the Huffington Post, by Dr. Michael Stanclift, ND