Charlie Baker Signs Naturopathic Medicine Licensing Bill

Practitioners of the alternative therapy may now be licensed. Is that a good thing?

Herbal Medicine

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On Wednesday, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a bill that makes Massachusetts the 19th state, plus Washington, D.C., to license practitioners of naturopathic medicine, a holistic system that relies heavily on natural remedies, self-healing, and low-risk treatments.

That may be a dubious honor.

Naturopathic medicine has been a source of controversy for years, drawing criticism from opponents of its unorthodox methods—think herbal remedies, homeopathy, detoxing, oxygen therapy, and the like—and fierce support from its believers. The new law is the result of more than two decades of advocacy and lobbying, but it’s certainly not without its critics.

The Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS), for one, has been opposed to naturopathic medicine licensing for years, citing a lack of evidence-based methods. “Licensing is likely to be perceived by the public as an endorsement of an area of care that lacks rigorous medical training and standards of care, and offers few if any treatments based on clinical and scientific evidence,” MMS President James Gessner said in a statement.

The Massachusetts Society of Naturopathic Doctors (MSND), logically, feels differently. “This law allows the people of Massachusetts access to well-educated and trained naturopathic doctors and their expertise in both preventative medicine and natural integrative care,” MSND President Amy Rothenberg said in her own statement, adding that the law will protect patients from inadequately trained practitioners.

Naturopaths—even licensed ones—do not attend conventional medical schools, instead earning degrees from four-year post-graduate schools with programs in naturopathy. In Massachusetts, even those who complete training will not be able to call themselves physicians or primary care doctors, prescribe medicine, or perform surgery.

That language may dissuade patients with serious illnesses—some of whom, including Rothenberg, do report finding relief after visits to naturopaths—from eschewing traditional medicine, a phenomenon that research has shown to happen when individuals see alternative practitioners.

Indeed, many doctors consider patients’ tendency to rely on naturopathy alone its most dangerous consequence. But some believe conventional medicine and naturopathy can work together.

Michelle Dossett, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, sent a letter on the subject to the Boston Globe, in which she called for cooperation between the two arenas.

“Naturopathic medicine is safe and effective for treating many health conditions and can be a helpful adjunct to conventional treatments,” she wrote, “especially for many chronic diseases where prescription medicines have limited efficacy.”

Some aren’t so sure. In his statement, MMS’ Gessner says simply, “We urge patients to be cautious when considering naturopathic treatments.”