Date: January 2005
Publication: Naturopathy Digest
Author: Tabatha Parker, ND, co-founder and medical director of NDI
Most health care professions have relief organizations like Doctors Without Borders providing volunteer opportunities in developing countries. Until now, there has not been a nonprofit dedicated to providing opportunities for naturopathic physicians. The 2003 founding of Natural Doctors International (NDI) has changed all that. Dr. Laurent Chaix, Dr. Michael Owen and I - all naturopathic physicians - realized the gap in international relief medicine and recognized that the naturopathic profession needed to contribute to the growing global health crisis. Having a relief organization dedicated to providing opportunities for NDs and other practitioners of alternative medicine made the most sense, so we started a nonprofit 501(c)(3) to do just that.
Two issues were of utmost importance to NDI: developing a strong presence and being legitimate in each country we worked in. Not wanting to be short-term medical tourists, NDI began working first with Nicaragua's Ministry of Health to develop a program that would be both sustainable and sanctioned. We began by designing a program that would establish long-term clinical opportunities for naturopathic physicians. Because of the training involved, naturopathic physicians are the perfect gatekeepers for alternative medicine outreach teams - they easily can go from discussing pathology exams with an MD to discussing herbal medicine preparations with a traditional medicine healer. NDs also have the advantage of a license to practice medicine, which not all alternative health care professions have. By starting with naturopathic rotations, NDI will pave the way for other types of alternative medicine practitioners. The decision was made to begin the pilot site in Nicaragua; negotiations with Nicaragua's Ministry of Health (MINSA) produced a three-year contract to have NDI physicians work in the Moyogalpa Center of Health on the island of Ometepe in southern Nicaragua. The contract recognizes naturopathic physicians and allows NDs to practice legally through NDI projects. NDs who apply must be licensed graduates from accredited, four-year institutions.
Currently, Dr. Michael Owen and I serve in the Center of Health on Ometepe Island. Since its inception in March 2005, we have provided over 800 patient visits, established five ongoing community outreach projects and completed two community support projects. Helping Hands, the backbone of NDI's success, is a free pharmacy supplying islanders with vitamins, homeopathic medicines, botanicals and pharmaceuticals. The generous donation from John Weeks and Dr. Jeana Kimball of their family's Isuzu Trooper, Esmeralda, has given Helping Hands the ability to run an ambulance service that has already saved two lives. NDI has sent more than $30,000 in donations to the Moyogalpa Center of Health from Dr. Eric Yarnell of Heron Botanicals; Al Czap of Thorne; Dr. Wayne and Lee Centrone of Portland, Ore. and Golden Lotus Botanicals; Boiron; Vital Nutrients; Hyland Homeopathics; NCNM; Oakmont Labs; and numerous personal donations over the past year. Heron Botanicals generously set up a program whereby doctors can request to have a percentage of their purchases go directly to NDI.
NDI offers both short- and long-term volunteer opportunities for doctors and students. Five students already have visited Casa NDI in Nicaragua this year: Christine Middleton (CCNM); Tyler Mongan, Holly Elmore and Alex Desoler (SCNM); and Ryan Sweeney (NCNM). "My experience visiting NDI was great, as I saw that medicine could be personal," said student Tyler Mongan. "Drs. Parker and Owen have made the effort to become a part of the community instead of just acting as foreign doctors who are in some way outside of and distanced from the people. They are willing to do things and fight for changes that demonstrate their commitment to a whole health perspective. I discovered more about naturopathic medicine and what it means to be a naturopathic physician in that week than I had in my entire first year of medical school." With the establishment of a one-year volunteer rotation for licensed NDs on the island of Ometepe, NDI is able to provide continuity of care. Applications for this rotation were due this fall and NDI proudly accepted Dr. Ananda Steigler, an NCNM graduate, who will join team NDI in Nicaragua this month. I will complete my second-year rotation as the medical director in Nicaragua. Finishing up his rotation in December, Dr. Owen will return to his home in Oregon, where he will lead doctors on one-to-two week NDI medical trips throughout the year and start a private practice. NDI receives rolling applications for the volunteer position and might add a third naturopathic physician in fall 2006 as funds permit.
We could not have done any of this without help from the community. Dennis Becklin of Environmental Container Systems and Susan White of Whitespeed have been our two main contributors. In September 2005, NDI held its first annual fundraiser and silent auction at Kell's Irish Restaurant in Portland, Ore. More than 100 people attended the event, many of them NDs, raising in excess of $8,000 for NDI. Thanks to volunteer Amy McCandlish for her successful efforts in coordinating this event. NDI is growing in leaps and bounds. We wanted to become the Doctors Without Borders of the alternative medicine community and we are doing just that. NDI recently received the community service award from the American Herbalist Guild and plans to start a botanical project in Nicaragua with the cash award. Our 2006 goal is to continue to strengthen Project Nicaragua and develop our presence in the international health community by coordinating with groups such as the World Health Organization, whose 2002-2005 Strategy on Traditional Medicine should be read by all naturopathic physicians (www.who.org). The world is changing, and naturopathic physicians are the future of medicine.