It’s the most intense pain I’ve ever felt in my life.
I’m 14 years old, rolling around on the floor in agony, sweat pouring from my forehead.
Mom finds me and runs red lights to get to the emergency room.
Doctors run tests, give me drugs and schedule me for surgery in a few hours.
I blink, then suddenly I’m lying in a hospital bed, light coming in through the windows.
It’s the next day, I’m told, and the surgery was a success. My appendix had burst on the operating room table, and I’m very lucky it didn’t happen sooner.
The moral of the story is that I’m incredibly grateful there was a medical doctor available to do that surgery (and not a naturopathic doctor, as they generally don’t do major surgery).
Now another story.
I’m 32 years old. I’ve just returned home from three months in Peru, including a stint in the Amazon jungle.
Due to some combination of the rainforest humidity, stress and a tremendous amount of tropical fruit-eating, I now have big white blobs showing up all over my chest, stomach and back.
They don’t go away, and I wonder if it’s the same skin issue Michael Jackson had.
It’s not life-threatening like the appendix incident, but it’s still unsettling. It turns out it’s a skin condition called tinea versicolor.
I go to my medical doctor first because it’s covered, but he prescribes a drug that has a long list of negative side effects.
My naturopathic doctor prescribes a couple of supplements and dietary changes, and the blobs gone 2 months later…
The Similarities Between MDs and NDs
There are still some parts of North America where anyone can call themselves a naturopath, but in this article I’m referring to licensed naturopathic doctors who have completed a degree at an accredited naturopathic medical college.
Most people don’t realize that medical doctors and naturopathic doctors complete almost the same amount of educational hours.
Actually, even their studies look similar for the first two years, although there are differences.
Naturopaths spend nearly 30% more time in a classroom setting, so they go more in-depth on anatomy, physiology, orthopedics and most systems of the body, and they spend a huge chunk of time on nutrition, which MDs barely even touch.
But medical doctors spend much more time on surgery and radiology (e.g. x-rays and ultrasounds).
Interestingly, both disciplines spend a similar amount of time on pharmacology (drugs). Although many NDs will never prescribe them (depending on the laws in their region, in addition to their own judgment), they need to understand how drugs interact.
The education begins to differ in year three.
Medical doctors often start to specialize, such as in emergency care, surgery, or oncology (cancer), and they start to see a lot of patients. In fact, they spend nearly 60% more time in a clinical setting than do naturopaths, although that time is mostly in just an observational role.
Naturopathic doctors all specialize in the same thing – becoming primary care physicians. They also start to see a lot of patients, not only observing but diagnosing and treating them. As a result, they’re ready to start treating patients as soon as they graduate.
But most naturopaths don’t go into residency (naturopathic residencies aren’t funded by the government, so there aren’t many of them in existence), so most medical doctors get a lot more hands-on experience in their specialties when they complete their residencies.
Which brings us to the topic at hand today…
When To See A Medical Doctor
You want to see a medical doctor when you need that speciality of theirs, such as when you:
- Have an emergency.
- Broke a bone and want it set back in place.
- Need surgery.
- Need an x-ray or other diagnostic imaging.
- Need a pharmaceutical prescription (although some NDs can do this too).
- Are experiencing symptoms you want to relieve through pharmaceuticals.
Medical doctors may use the following when treating you:
- Various lab tests and diagnostic imaging (e.g. x-rays).
- Lifestyle changes.
When To See A Naturopathic Doctor
You want to go see a naturopathic doctor when you’re experiencing symptoms that you want to relieve through natural methods, and when you also want to fix the root cause of the problem.
In general, medical doctors are educated in how to relieve symptoms rather than how to fix the reason those symptoms are there. The best primary care MDs take it upon themselves to learn more about the human body and the role of factors such as nutrition, but most of them don’t have the training in this area that NDs have.
For NDs, fixing the root cause is the core component of their education.
So good examples of when to see a naturopathic doctor include:
- Mental health. Such as stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue and insomnia.
- Diagnosed conditions. Such as hypothyroidism, obesity, allergies, asthma, cancer and heart disease.
- Pain relief. Such as indigestion, arthritis, back pain and injuries.
- Women’s health. Such as infertility, vaginal infections, PMS and menopause.
A medical doctor is likely to prescribe drugs or surgery in the above situations, while naturopathic doctors may use:
- Herbs, supplements and botanical remedies.
- Acupuncture and other Asian medicine.
- Various lab tests.
- Lifestyle changes.
And if you’re lucky enough to go to an integrative health clinic, you have access to a team that may include a naturopathic doctor, medical doctor, osteopath, chiropractor, massage therapist, etc.
If you’re looking for a doctor, here’s a list of questions to ask a naturopathic doctor (down the page a bit), which works just as well for medical doctors.
When To See Both Of Them
Many medical doctors don’t work regularly in cooperation with naturopathic doctors, as they tend to refer to other MDs, but some of them will work with your naturopath.
Naturopathic doctors actually spend a lot of time during their education learning how to work with MDs, and most are quite happy to do so.
You may find they both have something to offer for your situation, so if you want to see them both, you should.
Of course, if you live in a place where your medical doctor is covered by your insurance or health care system, you may go to them first.
Or if a naturopathic doctor is covered by your benefits, or if you just prefer more of a holistic approach, you may go to them first.
Medical doctors and licensed naturopathic doctors receive a similar length of education, but they specialize in different areas.
I would see a medical doctor in an emergency or when you need surgery or a prescription.
I would see a naturopathic doctor when you’re looking to heal the root cause of your health issue and prevent future issues.
And you can certainly see them both when they both have something to offer your situation.
To see a list of our naturopathic doctors, go here.