Mixed reception in Wisconsin’s medical community amid push to license, regulate naturopathy

At least one naturopath doctor has testified using false COVID science to a state legislative committee. A bill licensing and regulating naturopath doctors has cleared both houses of the state legislature.

MADISON, Wis. — Naturopathy could soon become recognized and regulated in Wisconsin, now that a bill regulating it has cleared both the Assembly and Senate. While the measure has bipartisan support, the reception among Wisconsin’s medical communities is mixed.

An alternative family medicine with an emphasis on natural remedies, 23 states offer licensing or registration for naturopathic doctors–largely in New England and in the West. Wisconsin’s naturopathic association has been lobbying for licensure since 2006, treasurer Dr. Jill Christa said, but only in the last three years have they ramped up their advocacy.

The Medical College of Wisconsin registered their opposition to the bill; the Wisconsin Medical Society first opposed and is now neutral on it. Part of that, WMS president-elect Dr. Wendy Molaska explained, is because the bill would not just recognize but help regulate the practice.

“Having a board to regulate naturopaths is a good idea, just like there’s a board to regulate doctors,” Dr. Molaska said.

The bill would create a seven-member board for licensing naturopaths, but would not allow them to write prescriptions for controlled substances. The Wisconsin Medical Society was heavily involved in an amendment that made that change, Dr. Molaska said.

“There’s a lot of differences between naturopath education and training, whether or not they’re accredited or not,” Dr. Molaska explained, a family medicine doctor practicing in Fitchburg. She said even some naturopaths opposed gaining the ability to write prescriptions, due to training differences.

“We feel a lot of education is different, we did not feel it was appropriate for naturopaths to be prescribing medications, including controlled substances, especially in light of the current opioid epidemic.”

People who are licensed as naturopathic doctors have obtained a four-year undergraduate school and attended a naturopathic medical school. They start their residencies sooner than among general practitioners, naturopath Dr. Christa said.

“We’re trained with an emphasis on natural medicine and hopefully getting people moved from more high-intervention, high-cost measures to things that are more in their control,” Dr. Christa said. “Naturopathic medicine is basically primary care that has a natural bent.”

Naturopathy and COVID vaccines

In early January, a Madison-based naturopath testified before a state legislative committee about COVID vaccines, saying he discouraged the vaccine for most of his patients under 80 and didn’t agree that vaccines and masking were the way to end the pandemic. The vast majority of the scientific community–which includes specialists trained in epidemiology and infectious disease, which naturopaths are not–agree that the vaccine is safe and effective against severe hospitalization and death.

“I don’t think it fits any of the science,” Dr. Aaron Henkel (licensed in Washington) said of vaccines and masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and every major public health and medical organization in Wisconsin backs the COVID vaccines as scientifically effective in keeping most people from a severe COVID infection. (Data from the Department of Health Services shows an unvaccinated person is eleven times more likely to be hospitalized by COVID, and twelve times more likely to die. Those statistics are even higher in other areas of the country.)

At the same time, some naturopath doctors have written public op-eds in support of the vaccine, with one providing advice in Mother Jones for dealing with vaccine deniers. The Oregon Association of Naturopathic Physicians issued a statement in support of vaccines. Yet when questioned about whether she would recommend the COVID vaccine for the majority of her patients, Dr. Christa–representing Wisconsin’s naturopathic chapter–said she’d rather not discuss it at the time.

“We work really hard to make sure patients fully understand the risks, the benefits, and that they’re making their own choice,” she said. “There are some people where, having a vaccination, they don’t have the immune system for it or they’re not going to have a positive response.”

According to the CDC, the vaccine is safe and appropriate for immunocompromised patients, who are at higher risk for severe cases of COVID-19. And for the overwhelming majority of individuals, the medical community has backed the vaccine as safe.

“It’s very rare to find a doctor that doesn’t support it, but you can find one,” Dr. Molaska said of general practitioners outside of naturopathy, cautioning against painting all of neuropathy with the same anti-vaccine brush. However, she noted, it’s important that naturopaths stay within the bounds of what they’re trained for.

“The traditional view from most medical doctors is that there’s kind of a place for it, but a limited scope of practice,” Dr. Molaska said, citing the more clear benefits of things like basic nutrition and exercise that many naturopaths encourage.

“The best naturopaths, the best medical doctors, are those who kind of know their limits. As a family practice doctor, I do a whole spectrum of diagnoses and procedures and care, but I also know where my limits are.”

Push for regulation

The first state law allowing the licensure of naturopaths happened in the state of Washington in 1919, Dr. Christa said. Another law followed in Connecticut in 1920; today, nearly half of all states have a law regulating naturopathy (as well as the District of Columbia and two territories). Fewer than half of them, however, allow naturopaths to prescribe controlled drugs.

Hold-out states are primarily in the Midwest and the South; Minnesota, however, recognizes the practice.

“This isn’t just a west coast thing or a hippie thing, this is all across the country and the Midwest is just catching up,” Dr. Christa said.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ office did not respond when asked whether the governor planned to sign the bill into law.


Photojournalist Lance Heidt contributed to this report.