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Dr. Nature

Naturopathic physicians ask lawmakers for licenses, rules


Michele Morgan's old-world Italian grandfather never really understood the doctor thing. He doctored himself. The corner of an empty lot in Chicago served as his "medicine garden," where the grandkids learned that chamomile calms jitters, a little peppermint works wonders on headaches and dandelion leaves settle heartburn. Years later, Morgan continued the tradition by easing her daughters' diarrhea, fevers and painful teething with garden herbs. She even earned a doctorate in botanical and homeopathic medicine. But when she started hawking plants to folks who wanted to boost their energy levels, Morgan faced some stiff opposition.

In recent years, the Idaho Legislature has entertained several bills calling for the licensure of natural health care practitioners. Morgan says the proposed licensing requirements were so restrictive she would have been forced to close shop. She already had to close shop once-in Montana-when that state passed similarly strict legislation. She estimates that hundreds of other naturopathic service providers in Idaho would have faced a similar fate, and that thousands of clients would be left without a source of treatment.

"Where would they go? They'd have to go to Nevada," Juliana Benner, a Boise colon hydrotherapist says of her clients.

Lawmakers are pondering similar licensing requirements this week, but this time Morgan backs the bill. She says the proposed legislation, Senate Bill 1158, would actually protect patients seeking natural health treatments and affirm her ability to provide natural health services.

SB 1158, sponsored by Rep. Bill Sali (R-Kuna 21) and Sen. Robert Geddes (R-Soda Springs 31) would place standards and licensing requirements on trained naturopathic physicians, while allowing other natural health practitioners like Morgan to continue providing services. The difference between SB 1158 and the Montana law is an educational requirement. Morgan, despite her doctorate could not meet the standard in Montana-only naturopathic physicians could.

Naturopathic physicians hold doctorate degrees from accredited naturopathic medical schools and receive training in conventional medicine as well as naturopathic methods. On the other hand, the training of natural health care service providers such as homeopaths, nutrition counsellors and intuitive healers varies. It could come from online schools, specialized institutions, apprenticeships or simply years of practice.

Currently, neither group of practitioners is licensed in Idaho. Bill authors say that's how consumers run into problems. They say some patients don't know the difference between the providers, because a practitioner could label him or herself a "naturopathic physician" and have no medical training. And some consumers wouldn't know if they put their health in the hands of a trained professional or a quack.

Natural health care providers and naturopathic physicians say the hefty 11-page bill would help to clear the confusion and set some detailed health care standards. Consumers say the regulations could protect their health.

"You look in the phone book and who knows? Anyone could open shop," says Corissa Mueller, a Boise mom who takes her three young children to a naturopathic physician. "It's a step in the right direction. It's saying that they offer a valuable service."

Mueller, like many natural health consumers, still takes her kids to conventional medical doctors when their ailments demand treatment that goes beyond the scope of naturopathic practices. SB 1158, however, would allow licensed naturopathic physicians access to several important medical avenues-for instance, using laboratory tests, prescribing natural-based medications and performing some minor outpatient procedures. Right now, naturopathic physicians aren't even allowed to administer a vitamin B12 shot.

"Here in Idaho, because there's no licensing, I can't practice my full scope of training," says Dr. Joan Haynes, a Boise naturopathic physician. Haynes trained at a naturopathic medical school and knows how to use antibiotics and remove questionable moles. But she can't put that knowledge into practice. The bill distinguishes the difference between physicians like Haynes who practice naturopathic medicine and natural health care service providers who might ease your ills with a good whiff of lavender.

Morgan and Benner are described as naturopathy providers under the proposal. While they would not be required to hold a license, they would be limited to providing only air, light, water, heat, massage and similar therapies that are not "inherently injurious to the public health."

The bill is the first of its kind in the country and is co-authored by Sali, Geddes, the Idaho Coalition for Natural Health and the Idaho Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Morgan and others in the natural health community tout the bill as "freedom of health" legislation.

"All of the people who were like me sort of went underground," Morgan says of her Montana counterparts.

"People should have the right to choose who they go to for heath care, license or not," Benner adds.

And patients are choosing. Haynes' appointment book filled so quickly she recently had to hire another physician. You'll find a few granola types in her office for an annual physical, but also chronically ill patients who have gotten nowhere with conventional medicine. Haynes says medical doctors often refer their patients to her and vice versa. For many of her patients, M.D.s and N.D.s are part of their heath care plans. Unfortunately, they don't currently carry the same protections.

"If I hurt someone or someone had a complaint about me, they would not have a place to go," Haynes says. Currently, complaints against medical doctors go to the State Board of Medicine and the board takes disciplinary action. "We want that," Haynes says of naturopathic physicians.

Accordingly, the bill proposes the creation of an official board to determine the qualifications of naturopathic physicians applying for licensure, investigate complaints and discipline anyone violating licensing rules. Those regulations could mean better service, but also better coverage of N.D. services under health insurance plans. Haynes says some insurance companies even court trained N.D.s because their nature-based services tend to be cheaper and preventive-something Morgan's grandfather learned along time ago.

"We never got sick, we ate so much garlic," she recalls.