It's estimated that fewer than 3% of all licensed physicians practice any form of “alternative" medicine but a full 36% of Americans use some form of complimentary medicine on a regular basis, according to a 2004 study done by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Factor in non-medical treatments like prayer and nutritional therapies like megavitamin therapy, that number rises to 62%. Clearly, Americans are embracing “natural" and alternative medicine in record numbers. But who's providing the services?
The lack of regulation, which varies widely from state to state, makes it impossible to discover how many people are practicing alternative therapies like naturopathy, herbalism and homeopathy on a professional basis. Potentially, there are thousands of minimally-trained practitioners offering medical services to patients who have no idea that their “doctor" is unlicensed and unqualified.
So why is there so much debate about licensing alternative health care providers like naturopaths and herbalists? Opponents of licensing claim that such licensing would deny patients freedom of choice and put self-educated practitioners out of business. But what about the safety of their patients? Licensing will ultimate protect patients from unqualified practitioners. If you're a client of natural or alternative medicine here's what you need to know:
- Licensing will assure that your practitioner has adequate training. The vast majority of herbalists, homeopaths and naturopaths operating in this country are self-taught and have no clinical experience before they're granted their diplomas. Even worse is the fact that many have never even met their instructors or mentors because they “earned" their diplomas through online diploma mills. Licensing alternative practitioners will assure that your provider has hands-on training and hasn't simply taken a 6-week online “course".
- Licensing will ultimately protect you in the case of malpractice. As troubling as it is to think that most practitioners are self-trained, it's perhaps even more worrisome that most don't have any type of malpractice insurance. Unlike mainstream physicians, who typically are well-insured against malpractice claims, unlicensed naturopaths and herbalists usually can't qualify for malpractice coverage, mainly because of their lack of legitimate medical training. In the event of an injury, a patient may have little opportunity to recover monetary damages.
- Licensing would require proof of competency. When you walk into an attorney's office, a car repair shop or a day care, you have at least some assurance that the person you're about to hire has both experience and training. But when you sit down with an alternative health care provider, you've no way of knowing if that person is a legitimate practitioner or the product of a brief internet “class". Licensing natural and alternative providers would require proof of training through an accredited program. Proof of competency won't turn a bad herbalist into a good one but it will prove that he or she at least completed the program.
- Licensure will ultimately protect the practitioner, too. The lack of consistent regulation in many states (and the complete absence of legislation in others) forces many alternative health care providers to work in a legal “gray area". Licensing would clearly define what an alternative provider could and couldn't do, ultimately protecting him from charges of practicing medicine without a license.
Regardless of where you stand of the issue of licensure for natural and alternative health care providers, it's important to remember that, ultimately, it's all about patient safety. Assuring that our clients get quality health care information should be a top priority for anyone working in this field.
Lisa Barger is a traditional naturopath specializing in natural health education. To learn more about Ms. Barger's belief in "Empowerment through Education" or to take a free online natural health class see her website, www.LisaBarger.com