By Britt Marie Hermes
A popular form of pseudoscience is naturopathic medicine. Some people may not have heard of it because it’s been relatively obscure until the last decade or so. Now naturopaths are all over the place with detoxes, homeopathy, and a whole suite of “treatments” ranging from herbal enemas to intravenous injections of herbs and vitamins. They are also claiming that they are “medically trained.”
So, I was one of these “naturopathic doctors.” I went to a school near Seattle named Bastyr University, which told prospective students that its curriculum was “just like” medical school. It was a lot of work at times, but we spent it learning pseudoscience and magical theories that was mixed with just enough real medicine to make it believable. When I graduated in 2007, I fully believed I was a doctor. In Washington state, where I was first licensed, I was even legally allowed to call myself a physician.
In Arizona, where I practiced until 2014, I used the title “naturopathic medical doctor.” I had a Federal DEA number that allowed me to prescribe some controlled substances. In my practice, I commonly prescribed drugs and ordered tests like X-rays, MRIs, and blood work. These signifiers of medical legitimacy reinforced the fantasy that I was a doctor, but none of us have the right training to have any medical responsibility. There is also a political aspect. Naturopaths lobby state and federal lawmakers to have this medical responsibility and to self-regulate, which means self-protection to allow the quackery to go on.
It was easy for me to brush off doubts while I was in practice. I had been doing it since my time at Bastyr. I remember finding critical information about naturopathy on websites such as Quackwatch or Science-Based Medicine. My response was to think those critics just didn’t understand. They didn’t know me or my philosophy.
I believed naturopathic therapies were inherently safe since they were “natural.” I thought that all alternative therapies, such as herbs, homeopathic substances, ozone gas, water, and other bizarre treatments you may cringe at, were effective because we were taught them in school. Why would the schools teach us treatments that didn’t work or that were dangerous? I was incredibly naive and, obviously, not a good critical thinker. I suffered from an appeal to nature, confirmation bias, and Texas sharpshooting.
My perspective abruptly changed after I discovered my former boss was importing and administering a non-FDA approved drug to cancer patients. This is a federal crime. Under my boss’s orders, I administered this drug to patients, and I still feel sick about it. I immediately confronted my boss and resigned. I reported my boss to the naturopathic regulatory board in Arizona. Then, I spoke with an investigator at the Attorney General. Afterward, I spoke with a naturopath and mentor who encouraged me to keep working with my former boss. He said this incident wasn’t a big deal; I was a naturo-path after all.
After this incident, I decided to critically comb through my naturopathic education documents. I examined the practices of my colleagues around the country. I quickly realized that my training at Bastyr was riddled with pseudoscience. I determined that naturopaths across the country were overwhelmingly using debunked, dangerous, or simply nonsensical treatments in their practices. This was the norm. My former boss was not the exception. The entire profession was rife with quackery. I could no longer be a part of it.
As a naturopath, I was proud of the fact that I spent about an hour or more with each patient. I took detailed family histories and often counseled patients about emotional matters in their lives. I asked about every personal detail. I knew my patients very well. But, this extra time spent with them does not translate into better medical care. It is important not to confuse good bedside manner and an easy repertoire with medical competency. The issue is that naturopaths do not know what they do not know. They certainly do not know the sharp limits of their training, and with this confidence and quality time seeing patients, its easy to develop relationships that translate into recurring customers.
All primary care providers, including physicians, nurse practitioners, and PAs, are trained to save lives and keep us healthy. I think they do a great job. Even though the healthcare system needs serious improvements, I think most of these practitioners are not contributing to the problem of hurting patient satisfaction. Naturopaths have an “in” because we are trained to connect with patients and make them feel like their concerns are fully heard. We take them seriously and with compassion. Medical schools and other training programs based in science should look at the science! We know there are better outcomes when doctors are nice, empathetic, and engage their patients. Maybe medical schools and others are already teaching this. Maybe it’s the system that’s the problem?
I used to be afraid of skeptics. The support of this community helped me make a public change from quackery to science. I am grateful for this community. I could not have done it without them. Whereas before I was drinking the Kool-Aid, now I am deeply concerned with patients getting harmed. Naturopaths do not give proper informed consent. How is this possible for a treatment that has no basis in reality like homeopathy. If you don’t tell the patient: “This is a bottle of sugar pills that’s had magic water dripped over it that contains a dilution of 10-400 duck liver and heart. There is no reliable evidence that this works for anything, and the industry is not regulated,” then you’ve crossed an ethical line and should not be in practice. It goes for all bad treatments, and naturopathy is full of them.
The naturopathic profession seems to be threatened by my blogging. I frequently get emails from naturopaths asking me to stop speaking out. There are some zingers for sure, but for the most part, naturopaths and other natural medicine zealots say I am being too hard. They often claim not all naturopaths practice how I experienced. So, it’s now the “no true naturopath” fallacy.
I am occasionally in touch with a few naturopaths who support my work. These individuals would like to see significant changes made to the naturopathic curriculum and to the profession as a whole. There are actually a few internal divisions within the naturopathic community that fall along various ideological lines. But for the most part, they are almost exclusively rallied against me. Many naturopaths who do support my work are no longer practicing. A major fallout of my advocacy is that I am no longer in contact with my closest friends and mentors. They feel betrayed.