Holistic M.D.s to Naturopaths: How to Find the Right Pediatrician

When Brooke Thomas’ 5-month-old son, Gus, had a seizure, she immediately took him to see the family’s conventional medicine pediatrician. “The doctor assured me that a one-time, mild seizure did not mean that my son would have epilepsy, and explained that infants have all kinds of unexplained neurological stuff that goes on,” Thomas recalls. While on one level these answers were reassuring, Thomas also knew that she didn’t want to simply stop looking for a potential cause. “I know conventional medicine has no protocol for dealing with things before they become a problem. I wanted to deal with this seizure proactively so that it wouldn’t grow into full-blown problem down the road.” 

Many mothers have similar stories of frustration with the guidance they receive from conventional pediatricians, whether it’s an over-reliance on antibiotics, a refusal to discuss vaccination options, or a simple lack of knowledge of natural remedies. But when it comes to choosing an alternative health care provider, the path can quickly become difficult to navigate. “There’s a big range of health care options out there, and it can be overwhelming,” admits Debby Hamilton, M.D., a holistic pediatrician in private practice in Boulder, Colorado. “But the good news is you have options. There are no treatments, or even vaccines, that are set in stone as long as you find someone who’s open to listening to you and working with you.”

To help you find the right practitioner for your family, here’s a look at some of the most common alternative health care providers—what they offer, how they work and how to find one near you. And although we’ve provided links to the professional organizations for each specialty, remember that the best way to find the right provider for your family is to ask trusted friends for referrals and to have an in-depth conversation with the practitioner before any treatment is begun (see our list of suggested questions below).

And as for Gus, Thomas consulted an acupuncturist who helped track down and treat a subtle imbalance in Gus’ nervous system. He hasn’t had a seizure since, and as an added benefit, his colic abated.

Primary Care Options

Holistic/Integrative Pediatricians (M.D.s)

While traditional medicine seeks to manage the symptoms of conditions and illnesses, holistic M.D.s—also known as integrative doctors—seek to provide preventive care so that symptoms have less of a chance to develop in the first place. They will prescribe antibiotics when it’s called for, but they will typically try to treat an infection with herbs and/or supplements first.

Holistic pediatricians offer a great combination of traditional Western medicine and complementary disciplines. The exact specialties will vary from doctor to doctor, but some examples of the other healing modalities holistic pediatricians incorporate into their practice are clinical nutrition, massage, biofeedback and aromatherapy. “A holistic M.D. often has multiple specialties,” Hamilton says. For example, she has studied nutrition and essential oils in addition to her traditional medical training. The end result gives patients access to a wide range of treatments.

Regardless of their specific specialties, “A hallmark of a holistic pediatrician is being open to parents’ ideas, taking the time to understand their opinion and supporting their choices,” Hamilton says. Caitlin Fitzgordon, a mom of two from Brooklyn, New York, chose to work with a holistic M.D. because of his combination of medical knowledge and bedside manner. “I wanted to find someone respectful to me and my family, who was gentle with my children, listened well, and allowed time for questions. I also wanted an M.D. who would allow me to make decisions on treatment and vaccinations without resorting to scare tactics and condescension.” Her pediatrician is an M.D. who is part of a large hospital’s complementary care center. Fitzgordon says he takes the time to understand the family dynamics that might be affecting Caitlin’s daughter’s sleep habits, for example, and he respects Caitlin's decision to follow an alternative vaccination schedule.

Many families seek out a holistic pediatrician simply because they prefer to take a more natural approach—trying vitamins or herbs to remedy an ear infection before resorting to antibiotics, for example. Others are dealing with conditions such as autism and find they aren’t getting anywhere with their traditional doctors. Either way, holistic M.D.s tend to be a family’s primary care provider.

Insurance: It depends on the provider. Because they are essentially M.D.s, they may well be covered by your plan as a primary care provider. Dr. Hamilton, in a move she says is typical of her fellow holistic M.D.s, provides her patients with receipts that contain all the diagnostic and treatment codes they need to file the claims themselves.

To find one near you: Visit the website of the American Holistic Medical Association. This organization requires its members to sit for an exam and pass board review.

Naturopaths (N.D.s)

According to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, N.D.s attend a four-year graduate-level medical school that covers the same curriculum as a standard medical school, with additional intensive training in nutrition, acupuncture, homeopathy, herbs and counseling. “Instead of seeking to suppress symptoms, as traditional Western medicine does, naturopathic doctors focus on diagnosing the root cause of any illness or symptom and giving the body what it needs to heal itself,” says Chris Booren, N.D., a naturopath in private practice in Portland, Oregon.

A typical visit lasts as long as an hour and covers all areas that can affect a child’s health—including diet, sleeping habits, daily routines, home environment and family dynamics—and standard treatments include vitamin and mineral supplements, digestive aids, herbs or homeopathic remedies. N.D.s can serve as primary caregivers, or you could choose to work with an N.D. in addition to an M.D. “Some of my clients need a primary care physician on record with their insurance company, in case their child is in accident or something, but they tend to see me first for all their well-child needs,” Booren says. Because naturopathy seeks to address the root cause instead of managing symptoms, common reasons parents seek out an N.D. include behavioral issues that you suspect may have a physiological component, such as ADD or sleep problems; chronic conditions such as allergies, asthma, eczema or recurring ear infections—the types of conditions that can have a big impact on daily life and that are difficult to manage with prescription drugs without a lot of accompanying side effects.

Accreditation: At this time, not all states give licenses to N.Ds. If you work with an N.D. in a state that provides licensure, he or she will be able to write prescriptions and order blood tests, just as an M.D. would. But if you’re in one of the many states that don’t license N.D.s, you won’t have these options available to you. If you reside in a non-licensing state, be sure you’re working with a qualified naturopath, ask where they went to school and confirm that they graduated from an accredited college, such as Bastyr University in Seattle or the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Insurance: Many insurance companies will provide some coverage under their “alternative providers” rider, treating N.D.s the same way they do acupuncturists and chiropractors.

To find one near you: Visit the website of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

Complementary Care Options

Traditional Chinese Medicine

These health care providers generally use a combination of Chinese herbs, acupuncture and acupressure to tap into the body’s own source of vital energy and bring balance back to the system. Look for the letters O.M.D. (Doctor of Oriental Medicine) and/or L.Ac. (Licensed Acupuncturist) to indicate that the provider has completed a certified course of study.

Chiropractors

Chiropractic medicine deals primarily with skeletal and neuromuscular issues, such as chronic back, neck or shoulder pain or conditions that can result from poor postural alignment, such as headaches. Chiropractors use hands-on techniques including massage, joint manipulation and spinal adjustments, and often also prescribe accompanying lifestyle modifications, such as diet and exercise.

To find a chiropractor near you: Visit the American Chiropractic Association.

Homeopaths

Homeopathy uses highly diluted extracts of flowers, plants, minerals and animal material to send subtle messages to the immune system. The discipline follows the principle of “like cures like,” meaning that a practitioner will prescribe a remedy that, in large doses, would produce the same symptoms that a patient is suffering from. For example, for a child with the itchy, burning eyes associated with hay fever, a homeopath may use a remedy derived from onions, which produce similar symptoms when cut. Homeopathic remedies contain minute amounts of active ingredients, making them particularly suitable for use with children.

To find a homeopath near you: Visit the North American Society of Homeopaths.

Questions to ask a prospective health care provider:

  • How long do you spend with each patient for an initial visit? For a follow-up visit?
  • Are you open to discussing a wide array of treatment options? Do you encourage your patients’ parents to do their own research and formulate their own opinions?
  • What is your background—where did you train, are you licensed or certified, are you a member of any professional organizations?
  • How long does it take to get an appointment? What about for emergencies? What kind of contact do you have with your patients between appointments?
  • Do you work with insurance companies?
  • What is the cost of a typical visit? Do you offer payment plans?

Kate Hanley is a freelance writer who specializes in exploring the mind-body connection. She completed her yoga teacher training at OM Yoga in New York City and has studied with yoga teachers like Rodney Yee and Cyndi Lee and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg.

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