Alberta has beefed up the powers of its naturopathic doctors, giving them full status as medical professionals but stopping short of funding treatment.
The move – chiefly, the creation of a College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta – allows the profession to self-regulate and weed out those who don't meet certain standards.
It will likely mean more private health plans will cover naturopathic treatment, Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne said, and will allow patients to claim receipts as medical expenses on tax returns.
As part of the deal, which comes after 14 years of negotiation, the province's 144 naturopaths have agreed to a list of services they're not authorized to provide.
Alberta is the fifth province to elevate naturopaths to professional status by creating a college.
"It is a very significant milestone for this profession, and a recognition of the knowledge and skills that members of the association bring to their work," Mr. Horne said Wednesday, speaking at a central Edmonton naturopath clinic. "...It also reflects the recognition a growing number of Albertans give to the services provided by naturopathic doctors."
Mr. Horne said the move will help Albertans be sure they'll get quality care. Previously, the now-defunct association of naturopaths, founded in 1944, had no recourse to discipline unqualified people who were practicing as naturopaths.
"We have done this because we want Albertans to feel as secure in the education, competency and skills of practitioners to perform naturopathic services as they feel when they visit a medical doctor or medical service, a dentist or dental service, or any other regulated profession," Mr. Horne said, adding he once visited a naturopath himself, albeit "years and years ago."
The move was celebrated by the profession.
"This is an amazing day for naturopathic doctors," said Kim Lena, a naturopath who hosted Mr. Horne's announcement.
They'll be allowed to perform injections; minor surgeries, such as wart removal; ear exams; and, with additional training, other procedures such as the use of some intravenous treatments.
They can't prescribe drugs or order x-rays.
The Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons was among other professional groups consulted about the change, and supports it. "Regulating naturopathy will help protect the public and ensure consistent standards and quality – and that's positive for the profession and for patients," spokesperson Kelly Eby said in an e-mail.
At minimum, naturopaths take three years of "pre-medical education" before a four year accredited professional program.
"We offer Albertans a distinct system of primary care that is an art, a science, a philosophy and a practice of diagnosis and assessment, treatment and intervention of illness," said Allissa Gaul, an Alberta naturopath who averages 600 new patients a year and will serve as the college's first president. Naturopaths typically focus on wellness, dietary concerns and herbal or homeopathic treatments, she said.
Asked whether the move legitimizes a profession with far less stringent educational requirements than traditional medicine – you don't need to go to medical school to be a naturopath – Mr. Horne said it's the government's priority to protect the public by regulating each profession, not pick sides.
"We're not here to endorse any particular philosophy or form of treatment," Mr. Horne said, noting there are two dozen health professions, including acupuncture and massage therapy, with the same status.
Marilyn Dusener, 52, attended the announcement. She began seeing a naturopath two-and-a-half years ago. The treatments have worked, she said, and she applauded the announcement.
"It's recognition that it's a legitimate field, a legitimate practice and it should be recognized just as much as a medical doctor," she said, adding she hopes it will one day be funded. Her visits cost about $170, one-third of which is covered by her employer's health plan. "It's a commitment" to visit a naturopath without coverage, she said.
Mr. Horne balked, though, when asked whether the province would now consider funding treatment.
"Well, not in the immediate term," he said.