The first veteran I ever treated was in 1986, early in my naturopathic medicine practice. He was an affable gentleman, walking with a cane and beautiful air of confidence.
He had been in the trenches in World War II and spent too many nights in wet, cold environments. By the time he arrived home, crippling osteoarthritis in his extremities, sternum, and neck had led to compromised mobility, disabling pain, and dependence on pain medication.
We worked together over the course of a number of years to reduce the inflammation and pain and to improve his capacity to walk on his own. He was able to discontinue his reliance on pain medication, which in turn helped both his mental clarity and his digestive system. He paid out of pocket and bemoaned the fact that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) did not offer naturopathic medical services.
Fast forward 33 years, the VA announced it would begin to cover naturopathic doctor (ND) services. This progressive decision was made after studying the research and hearing from naturopathic doctor and patient advocates about the essential role naturopathic doctors can play at the VA. The news that a naturopathic clinic in Washington state has signed a contract with a benefits administrator of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to provide services to veterans is long overdue and more than welcome. NDs have been providing care to vets paying out of pocket for many years.
The VHA has also hired NDs to oversee Whole Health initiative centers at the South Texas Veterans Health Administration in San Antonio, and at their Tucson, VHA facility.
It is a watershed moment for the many veterans suffering from pain, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other complaints arising from dedicated service to our country. Like many licensed naturopathic doctors, I have had the opportunity and honor to treat veterans; we have many approaches in our toolkits and stand ready to help.
According to the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges, approximately 6,500 NDs are licensed to practice naturopathic medicine, having earned their degree from four-year postgraduate naturopathic medical schools accredited through the U.S. Department of Education. The approaches studied include nutritional counseling and stress reduction, botanical medicine, therapeutic manipulation, and Oriental medicine. A strong emphasis is placed on disease prevention, treating the whole person, and educating patients on proactive self-care to attain and maintain improved health.
The VA serves over nine million veterans each year, and pain is one of the most common complaints. Fifty-eight percent of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan report chronic pain. Tracy Gaudet, M.D., who directs the VHA’s Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation, states that having licensed naturopathic doctors at the VA is consistent with the agency’s goals of personalized, proactive, and patient-driven health care.
The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians commissioned a nationwide survey of a representative sample of America’s veterans. Close to two-thirds of veterans (64 percent) said they would prefer a doctor who prescribes natural therapies before considering drugs or surgery. And almost three-quarters of veterans (73 percent) would consider seeing a NDs if he or she were on staff at a nearby VA facility.
My father was also a WWII veteran, serving in Germany. He would be happy to know that vets will now have access to a range of medical options, including naturopathic medicine.