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Naturopathic Physicians and the Veterans Administration

The VA has the ability to assign NDs an existing employment code; Congress' letter is intended to encourage the VA to take this important next step.
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The first veteran I ever treated in my medical office was during my first week of private practice in 1986. This affable gentleman, walking with a cane and air of confidence, had been in the trenches in World War II. He spent a few too many days and nights in a wet and cold environment; by the time he arrived home after the war, he had crippling osteoarthritis in many of the joints of his extremities, his sternum and his neck. He was compromised in his ability to get around and to partake in work and family life. But his service to his country was a profoundly meaningful one for him, and he relayed stories of his time overseas with clarity and pride so many decades later. We worked together over the course of a number of years to reduce the inflammation and pain he experienced and to improve his range of motion. He was able to discontinue his reliance on pain medication, which in turn helped his digestive system. He paid out of pocket and bemoaned the fact that the VA hospital in our city did not offer naturopathic medical services.

Fast forward 30 years. As a naturopathic physician, I have had many opportunities to treat veterans and have many approaches in my toolkit for patients with pain as well as other complaints. The VA serves 8.76 million veterans each year, and pain is one of the most common complaints. Statistics from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan find up to 58 percent report chronic pain.

Tracy Gaudet, M.D., who directs the VHA's Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation, has stated unequivocally that having licensed naturopathic doctors at the VHA is consistent with the agency's goals of personalized, proactive, and patient-driven health care.

AMVETS, one of the country's largest veterans service organizations, has teamed up with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) to promote natural, non-pharmacological approaches to treating veterans suffering from chronic pain. In a Dear Colleague letter in the U.S. House of Representatives, lawmakers have called on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to take steps to employ licensed naturopathic physicians, who are trained in natural, non-invasive methods of healing.

Congressman Mark Pocan (D-WI), concerned about the dangers of overmedicating veterans, especially with prescribed opioid drugs, has penned a letter that many colleagues have signed including Representatives Julia Brownley (D-CA), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), and Walter Jones (R-NC) as the letter's initial signators.

Pocan writes:

After incidents across the country of veterans overdosing on or abusing opioids associated with chronic pain, it is clear we need a new approach to veterans' pain management ... Our veterans deserve access to all possible forms of care when making their health care decisions, including the services provided by naturopathic doctors (NDs).

The letter urges VA Secretary Robert McDonald to assign an employment code to licensed NDs so that they can be brought into the agency's health care system. Signators support the inclusion of licensed naturopathic doctors, who are trained in the use of safe and effective natural and conventional therapies, in the spectrum of health care professionals employed within the agency."

The AANP commissioned a nationwide survey of a representative sample of America's veterans. Close to two-thirds of veterans (64 percent) said they would prefer a doctor who prescribes natural therapies before considering drugs or surgery. And almost three-quarters of veterans (73 percent) would consider seeing a ND if he or she were on staff at a nearby VA facility.

According to the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges, approximately 5,000 NDs are licensed to practice naturopathic medicine, having earned their degree from four-year postgraduate naturopathic medical schools accredited through the U.S. Department of Education. The approaches studied include nutritional counseling and stress reduction, botanical medicine, therapeutic manipulation, and oriental medicine. A strong emphasis is placed on disease prevention and educating patients on proactive self-care to maintain wellness.

The VA has the ability to assign NDs an existing employment code; Congress' letter is intended to encourage the VA to take this important next step.

AMVETS (American Veterans), a leader since 1944 in preserving the freedoms secured by America's Armed Forces, has supported Veterans, Active & Reserve Component Service Members, their families and survivors, for more than a half a century. As a leading advocate for Veterans rights and benefits, AMVETS serves as one of the preeminent voices of Veterans on Capitol Hill. AMVETS seeks to enhance and defend the earned benefits of all Veterans and Service Members through leadership, advocacy and service. Learn more here. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) is the professional association that represents licensed naturopathic physicians. AANP strives to make naturopathic medicine available to every American, and to increase recognition of naturopathic physicians as authorities on natural medicine. Learn more here.

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To learn more about the education & training of naturopathic physicians, see here.