RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A Virginia delegate has once again revived efforts to offer official licensing to naturopathic “doctors” — practitioners who focus on lifestyle changes and natural dietary supplements over mainstream medical practices.
HB 1489, patroned by delegate Glenn Davis (R – Virginia Beach), would establish a system of licensure for anyone claiming to practice naturopathy. The bill established requirements for licensure, which include receiving a doctor of naturopathy degree from a “naturopathic medical education program” and completing an exam administered by the North American Board of Naturopathic Examiners.
In return, those licensed would gain the right to practice as primary care providers, order lab tests, attend to childbirths and perform basic injury treatments. Currently, many of those practices are restricted to licensed professionals such as nurses and doctors.
But is it medicine?
Clark Barrineau, Assistant Vice President of Government Affairs for the Medical Society of Virginia, told 8News that the organization opposes extending licensure to naturopathy in part because the practices don’t have scientific backing.
“What this would do, from our perspective, is give naturopathic doctors a stamp of approval from the commonwealth,” he said. “Their coursework, their training, all of it — there’s ample evidence to suggest that it’s not backed by science or good medicine.”
MSV is a professional organization representing doctors, medical students and physician’s assistants.
He added that naturopaths who want to recommend vitamins, address lifestyle health and perform other non-medical services already can — but he said licensure would muddy the waters and potentially lead patients to confuse naturopathic doctors with mainstream medical practitioners.
“They use the word ‘primary care,'” he said. “It’s going to obfuscate the nature of medicine itself.”
8News attempted to contact Delegate Davis for comment on this story, but received no response. Attempts to contact the Virginia Naturopathic doctors Association were also unsuccessful, as the organization does not post any public contact information, and its linked social media presence appears to be focused on promoting the sale of website templates.
Carving a Niche
Barrineau said that there was still a place for naturopathy in broader medical practice.
“We’re happy to continue to talk to them and work with naturopaths,” he said, adding that he had used naturopathic remedies himself recently when his children became sick.
“We’re not saying it’s bad or unsafe in and of itself, but it is the stamp of approval from the commonwealth and then the simple fact that we’ve studied it nine ways from Sunday and it’s been found wanting,” Barrineau said.
On a national level, the practice of naturopathy is a patchwork of different state regulations. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians advocates for regulation of the field, and points to recent regulatory efforts in places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as success stories.
That includes advocating for naturopathic practitioners to be allowed to prescribe controlled substances (as they can in nine states) and receive Medicaid reimbursement (as they can in six states).
But even those efforts have been criticized by skeptics such as retired Tufts medical professor Kimball Atwood IV, who, in his overview of the field, that it was “replete with pseudoscientific, ineffective, unethical, and potentially dangerous practices.”
This isn’t the first time the naturopathic profession has sought formal recognition from Virginia’s Department of Health Professions. Similar legislation failed in 2005 and 2021 after studies by the department found there was simply no need for licensure.
The 2005 study, performed by DHP, found that because the field restricts itself in principle to non-invasive treatments with little potential for harm, licensure would be an unnecessary burden.
“When considering the actual instances in which individuals had been harmed by persons claiming to be naturopathic practitioners, the Committee deemed that the issue was of unscrupulous, incompetent practitioners that were not members of the naturopathic physicians group, those seeking regulation,” the study concluded.
In two cases — one in which a diabetic child was told by a self-professed naturopath to discontinue insulin and another in which a woman was disfigured by the application of acid to her face — regulation was deemed unnecessary because the naturopaths could be charged with unlicensed practice of medicine and other criminal counts.
But the studies — and Barrineau — suggested that other forms of regulation could be the basis of a productive compromise.
“There is title protection,” Barrineau said. “Other professions have started with that.”
Under that framework, explored in the 2020 study, practitioners who want to use the title “naturopath” and advertise themselves as such would have to meet minimum education requirements and would be subject to professional discipline by a state board. However, the scope of practice would not change, and naturopaths — even so-called naturopathic “doctors” — would still be barred from practices defined under unlicensed practice of medicine.