How to Become a Naturopathic Doctor

Overview

By Andrew T. Colucci, MD
Naturopathic doctor using acupressure techniques

Naturopathic doctors are licensed physicians who strive to integrate the benefits of conventional medicine with complimentary botanical, nutritional and homeopathic therapies. They assess not only their patients’ physical health, but their emotional, mental and spiritual health as well. This approach is informed by the philosophy of treating the whole person, rather than just the symptoms.

Naturopathic doctors combine conventional and alternative treatments to complement each other, giving them a toolkit that is considerably more diverse than that of traditional, allopathic physicians. They experience the satisfaction of helping patients overcome their immediate health issues while also addressing the behaviors and belief systems that underlie the symptoms at hand. In this way, naturopathic doctors help their patients recover today and prepare for a healthier tomorrow.

Work Environment

Naturopathic doctors (NDs) can work in a wide variety of clinical settings, including hospitals, community health centers, private practices and clinics. As with any physician, the working hours can be irregular depending on the clinical setting. For example, naturopathic doctors serving inpatient hospital-based settings may often need to work overnight or be on-call. To be "on-call" means to be available overnight and on weekends in order to answer patient and nurse calls, to prescribe medications, and to make emergency office or hospital visits, when necessary. Of course, NDs working in outpatient settings, such as a medical clinic, will often have better overall working hours.

Requirements

Education

The first step in a path towards naturopathic medicine is to obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. While there, pre-medical classes such as general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and biology are requisites. Following this undergraduate education, a four-year graduate degree from a naturopathic medical school is required.

When choosing a naturopathic medical school, it is important to distinguish between accredited and non-accredited programs. Examples of the former include Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington and San Diego, California. Attending the latter, however, decreases ones marketability and job prospects.

The core curriculum of naturopathic medical school begins with a foundation in traditional medical subjects, such as physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, and pharmacology. Additional emphasis is placed on complimentary medical subjects that are not typically part of a traditional physician’s training, including acupuncture, hydrotherapy, homeopathy, botanical medicine, and nutritional medicine.

Training

Similar to a traditional medical doctor (MD), a naturopathic doctor will dedicate the first two years of naturopathic medical school to classroom-based didactic study; the last two years focus on hands-on, clinical training. This clinical training is often pursued in the specialty area of naturopathic medicine that the student would like to ultimately practice, supervised by licensed NDs who themselves have completed the requisite specialty training. The Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine degree (ND) requires passing practical exams in addition to classroom study and clinical experience.

Licensing and/or Certification

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia require NDs to be licensed. These states require that the naturopathic doctor both attend an accredited four-year naturopathic medical school and pass a postdoctoral board exam - the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examinations (NPLEX). With this in mind, we again re-emphasize the importance of attending an accredited naturopathic medical school so that one’s area of practice is not ultimately limited.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

As with traditional physicians, NDs must be patient, empathetic, and able to make timely clinical decisions. Additionally, NDs should be driven and hardworking while demonstrating strong interpersonal skills. Finally, applicants should possess a strong passion for the “whole body” philosophy, in addition to an interest in balancing traditional and alternative medicines.

Opportunities for Advancement

The opportunities for career advancement in naturopathic medicine mirror those of traditional allopathic medicine – that is, they are specific to each given practice setting. For example, if employed by a hospital or healthcare system, there may be increasingly senior leadership roles that naturopathic physicians can pursue, such as division chief or chief medical officer. Alternatively, if the ND is employed by an academic medical center, career advancement may take place along a more traditional professorship pathway.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a naturopathic doctor, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

Interactive Map of Income and Job Growth Projections

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual salary for healthcare practitioners, of which naturopathic doctors are included, is $85,050. Meanwhile, the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges estimates that NDs on average earn between $80,000 and $90,000 per year, though some may earn as much as $200,000 yearly.

Each particular naturopathic doctor’s income will depend on the years of experience, specialty type, and location of the job. For example, NDs are typically paid more in the Midwest than they are in coastal metropolitan areas. Similarly, NDs who own their clinics will often make more than those employed by a hospital.

Healthcare continues to be a rapidly expanding and in-demand career field. As with many of the various available careers in healthcare, the future remains bright for naturopathy. This is in part due to a combination of an aging population and increasing patient interest in complimentary and alternative medicine. According to O*Net and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, naturopathic doctors can expect job growth of 8-14% between the years 2012 and 2022. This results in an above-average rate of career growth for naturopathic physicians as compared to all careers evaluated.

Further Reading

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