Types of Natural Health Practitioners

A very important element of navigating your healing journey is finding the most appropriate health practitioner forA stethoscope with a red heart shape in the middle of it. your unique healthcare needs.

It can be a bit confounding trying to decipher all of the different professions within the integrative health field, and to try to make sense of the alphabet soup that is following everyone’s name :).

Here we will explore all of the main types of natural health practitioners and the primary educational requirements and qualifications of each specific profession.

For further information on these professions and the type of medicine/healthcare that is practiced by each, please visit this article.

The Main Types of Natural Health Practitioners and Their Qualifications

  • Naturopathic Doctor (ND)

NDs must first receive an undergraduate degree from an accredited university. They must then move on to receive a 4-year graduate level doctoral degree in Naturopathic Medicine from a university that is accredited by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education, which is recognized by the US Department of Education.

ND programs are comprised of a rigorous curriculum involving a great deal of the same foundational components found within traditional medical training, including pharmacology. In addition, they include thorough advanced training in anatomy & physiology, nutrition, counseling, psychology, botanical medicine, physical medicine, clinical sciences, and much more.

An ND credential can not be acquired online, as a great deal of the educational requirements and training involve lab participation and hands on clinical experience within a teaching and/or community clinic.

NDs must pass an extensive 2 part postdoctoral board examination called the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examination (NPLEX) in order to become a licensed Naturopathic Doctor. They are also required to complete annual continued education.

As of 2022, NDs are currently licensed and regulated in 22 states as well as Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. While the scope of practice for most NDs is similar, there are particular variations depending on each state’s unique laws.

  • Functional Medicine Practitioner

This is a form of additional training/certification that is in addition to an already acquired professionally licensed healthcare credential. Functional Medicine Practitioners must become certified by The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) through a program that is available for already established and licensed healthcare professionals whom wish to adopt the functional medicine paradigm into their approach in practice.

This program involves completing coursework modules, submitting a case report, and passing The Institute for Functional Medicine Certification Program written exam.

Certified IFM practitioners must pass a subsequent written exam every ten years to maintain their certification.

Individuals with this certification will often include “FMP” or “IFMCP” after their name in addition to their other credential/s.

Functional Medicine Practitioners are licensed and regulated according to their initial/original professional healthcare credential.

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine Doctor (D-TCM)/Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (DAOM)

There are varying levels of study that can be pursued within the Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture fields, with the doctoral level being the highest professional medical credential.

A Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine or Traditional Chinese Medicine doctoral program can vary in length from 2 to 4 years at an accredited university. These are graduate level doctoral programs that must be accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM).

The programs that are only 2 years long require a Master’s degree from an ACAOM accredited acupuncture program as a prerequisite.

D-TCMs and DAOMs must pass the board exams administered by The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine for certification as required by most states.

Licensing and regulation for the overall field of Traditional Chinese Medicine varies from state to state, while the specific field of acupuncture is currently legally recognized and regulated in 47 states and Washington DC.

Some states require specific certification in Chinese Herbology or Oriental Medicine as part of their licensure process for Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors to be able to utilize herbs in their practice.

  • Chiropractor (Doctor of Chiropractic/DC)

DCs must first receive an undergraduate degree from an accredited university that was at least 3 years long. They must then move on to complete a 3 to 4-year graduate level doctoral degree in Chiropractic Medicine from an accredited chiropractic college.

DCs must pass a multiple part licensing examination called the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners (NBCE) to become a licensed Doctor of Chiropractic. There are various additional requirements to obtain state licensure for most states in the US which usually involve passing a test regarding that state’s specific laws and regulations. They are also required to complete annual continued education.

All 50 states as well as Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands license and regulate DCs.

2 books opened with a pen resting in one on a desk in front of a bookshelf lined with books.

  • Biological/Holistic Dentist (this practitioner will usually be a Doctor of Dental Surgery/DDS or Doctor of Dental Medicine/DMD)

All Biological/Holistic dentists have undergone traditional medical training to become a Doctor of Dental Surgery/DDS or a Doctor of Dental Medicine/DMD. Most have received additional training in natural healthcare modalities, as the field of Biological/Holistic dentistry utilizes mostly natural treatment methods.

A Biological Dentist is the most qualified to perform mercury amalgam filling removal and replacement, as they have been sufficiently trained in the “safe removal techniques” which are required to ensure that the toxic byproducts of the mercury metal aren’t ingested or inhaled by the patient or the practitioners performing the procedure.

All 50 states as well as Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands license and regulate the field of dentistry, which Biological/Holistic dentists are classified under.

  • Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)

A Certified Nutrition Specialist is 1 of 2 specific credentials in the natural health nutrition field that are licensed and certified professions (the other being a CCN, described below). A CNS has received the most advanced education and training in personalized nutrition and medical nutrition counseling.

There are 3 main requirements to becoming a CNS, the first being that one of the following must be obtained:

  1. Graduate from an accredited Master of Nutrition program
  2. Have a Master of Science or Doctoral degree from an accredited university in a related field such as Public Health, Dietetics, Nursing, etc
  3. Have a doctoral degree in healthcare such as Naturopathic Medicine, Chiropractic, etc from an accredited university

Secondly, at least 35 semester credit hours of relevant coursework specific to the nutrition science field must be completed, as well as 1,000 hours of supervised practice experience.

Thirdly, a CNS must pass the Certification Examination for Nutrition Specialists and complete 75 continuing education credits every 5 years to maintain their certification.

Licensing and regulation varies pretty considerably by state for the CNS profession, although Certified Nutrition Specialists are highly qualified professionals with the highest level of training in the personalized nutrition field.

  • Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN)

A CCN is very similar to a CNS in practice, although a CNS has received more advanced training.

To become a Certified Clinical Nutritionist, at least 1 of the following must be obtained:

  1. Receive at minimum a Bachelor of Science degree from an accredited university having completed courses in anatomy & physiology, human biology, nutrition, chemistry, and microbiology
  2. Receive a Master in Nutrition degree from an accredited university
  3. Be an established healthcare professional such as an MD, DO, etc and complete an additional 56-hour training program in clinical human nutrition

A quartz mortar and pestle filled with green leaves and small purple flowers on a wooden surface with green leaves next to it. Secondly, some states also require that a CCN complete a 900-hour internship as part of the licensing requirements.

Thirdly, they must pass the Certified Clinical Nutrition Examination and complete 40 hours of continued education every 2 years, in addition to retaking the licensing exam every 5 years.

Licensing and regulation varies by state for the CCN credential.

  • Holistic Psychologist 

A holistic psychologist (also sometimes referred to as a holistic psychotherapist or holistic counselor) is a psychologist who emphasizes “psychosynthesis” and recognizes the significance of considering and treating the Whole Person in mind, body, and spirit.

They will often utilize natural treatments before conventional treatments. Holistic psychiatrists are those whom have prescribing ability in regard to conventional drugs.

There are multiple paths to become a licensed psychologist or licensed counselor and there are multiple levels of training that can be obtained. Most holistic psychologists or similar such professionals are either Licensed Clinical Social Workers of Licensed Psychologists.

A Licensed Psychologist is most often required to obtain a PsyD or PhD doctoral degree from an accredited university. In addition, they must complete 1 to 3 years of supervised training via an internship or postdoctoral program (states vary and require anywhere from 2,000 to 6 or 7,000 hours). They must then pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. Lastly, they must obtain their state license. Licensing requirements will vary from state to state.

A Licensed Clinical Social Worker is required to obtain a Master of Social Work degree, complete approximately 2 years of supervised clinical experience hours, pass an exam administered by the Association of Social Work Board, and obtain state licensure to practice. Again, specific licensure requirements will vary depending on the specific state.

  • Health Coach (HC)

There isn’t a solidified path or set of requirements that must be met to become a health coach, as most health coaches will receive their training through private organizations.

Most education and training involves a focus on topics such as health and wellness, nutrition, human biology, psychology, fitness, and more.

The scope of practice for health coaches does not include medical nutrition counseling, diagnosing conditions, or providing medical/treatment advice.

Health coaches will usually be part of your practitioner team and can be extremely helpful in navigating the more day-to-day aspects of your healing journey.

Currently, no states in the United States license or regulate health coaches.

Conventional Practitioners Who Practice Natural Healthcare

  • Osteopathic Doctor (DO)

Osteopathic Medicine is a form of conventional medicine that shares some of the foundational characteristics of natural medicine. For example, a DO will emphasize prevention in practice, recognizes the significant impact that one’s environment and lifestyle can have on their health, and recognizes the interconnected nature of the human body.

DOs often utilize “manual medicine” including spinal manipulation and will consider alternative treatments to medications and surgery as part of their treatment approach.

DOs attend and graduate from osteopathic medical schools and follow a very similar route for licensing as that of Medical Doctors.

  • Medical Doctor (MD)

As is becoming increasingly more common, there are many conventional/allopathic Medical Doctors whom are receiving additional training in natural healthcare and implementing this into their medical practice.

Many MDs will receive additional training in functional medicine, for example, and will reformulate their practice to focus on identifying and treating the root cause of illness using both natural and conventional treatments combined.

This is a key component of natural healthcare overall: that all appropriate measures are taken into consideration per each individual’s very unique case. This can often involve combining both natural and conventional medicine so as to provide the most comprehensive care.

In Closing…

There are a variety of different forms of natural healthcare practitioners that you can choose from per your unique needs. As we’ve explored throughout this article, each of these professions requires a varying set of requisites that qualifies them for the successful practice of each form of natural healthcare.

It is fairly common for one practitioner to have several credentials as part of their educational background. For example, you may find a Doctor of Chiropractic (DC) who is also a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) so their name would be presented as Name, DC, CNS.

The legislation surrounding licensure and scope of practice for each of these professions varies greatly by state in the United States, and it is ever-changing. You will need to research your particular state’s statutes in order to be fully informed of the most up-to-date details.

Click here for further information on these professions and the type of medicine/healthcare that is practiced by each.

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