Naturopathy as a Model of Prevention-Oriented,
Patient-Centered Primary Care: A Disruptive
Innovation in Health Care
Ryan Bradley 1,2,3,*, Joanna Harnett 3,4, Kieran Cooley 3,5,6, Erica McIntyre 3,
Joshua Goldenberg 1,3 and Jon Adams 3
1Helfgott Research Institute, National University of Natural Medicine, Portland, OR 97201, USA;
2Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, University of California, San Diego,
La Jolla, CA 92093, USA
3University of Technology Sydney, Australian Research Center in Complementary and Integrative
Medicine (ARCCIM), Ultimo NSW 2007, Australia; firstname.lastname@example.org (J.H.);
email@example.com (K.C.); firstname.lastname@example.org (E.M.); email@example.com (J.A.)
Faculty of Medicine and Health, School of Pharmacy, The University of Sydney, Sydney NSW 2006, Australia
5Department of Research and Clinical Epidemiology, The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine,
Toronto, ON M2K1E2, Canada
6Transitional Doctorate Department, Paciﬁc College of Oriental Medicine, San Diego, CA 92108, USA
Received: 3 August 2019; Accepted: 10 September 2019; Published: 18 September 2019
Background and Objective: The concept of a “disruptive innovation,” recently extended to
health care, refers to an emerging technology that represents a new market force combined with
a new value system, that eventually displaces some, or all, of the current leading “stakeholders,
products and strategic alliances.” Naturopathy is a distinct system of traditional and complementary
medicine recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO), emerging as a model of primary care.
The objective here is to describe Naturopathy in the context of the criteria for a disruptive innovation.
Methods: An evidence synthesis was conducted to evaluate Naturopathy as a potentially disruptive
technology according to the deﬁning criteria established by leading economists and health technology
experts: (1) The innovation must cure disease; (2) must transform the way medicine is practiced; or
(3) have an impact that could be disruptive or sustaining, depending on how it is integrated into
the current healthcare marketplace. Results: The fact that Naturopathy de-emphasizes prescription
drug and surgical interventions in favor of nonpharmacological health promotion and self-care could
disrupt the present economic model that fuels health care costs. The patient-centered orientation of
Naturopathy, combined with an emphasis on preventive behaviors and popular complementary and
integrative health services like natural products, mind and body therapies, and other therapies not
widely represented in current primary care models increase the likelihood for disruption. Conclusions:
Because of its patient-centered approach and emphasis on prevention, naturopathy may disrupt or
remain a durable presence in healthcare delivery depending on policymaker decisions.
naturopathy; prevention; complementary medicine; chronic disease management;
The United States health care system is moderately eﬀective in prolonging life, albeit at high
]. There is much room for improvement in health care delivery, and within developed
Medicina 2019,55, 603; doi:10.3390/medicina55090603 www.mdpi.com/journal/medicina
Medicina 2019,55, 603 2 of 14
countries, there is near universal agreement on aspirations to achieve the “triple aim” of health
]—improved health and patient experience at a lower cost. Multiple tensions exist between
these three aims, which render them diﬃcult to achieve. Trade-oﬀs between the delivery of the clinical
services patients want versus those services known to reduce costs is an example of one fundamental
]. Additional contextual tensions preventing achievement of these combined aims include
the unpopularity amongst patients for approaches that limit access and coverage for services [
and the unpopularity amongst providers for approaches that reduce insurance reimbursement [
Technological “innovations” (e.g., electronic health records, gene-based therapies, and advanced
imaging technologies) are perceived as holding great promise for achieving this triad of health
care aims, yet, in most cases, these innovations have increased costs and fail to improve clinical
]. This context of moderate outcomes and high-costs with dissatisﬁed stakeholders has
created an opportunity for “disruptive” innovations to emerge in health care delivery [
]. One such
disruptive innovation with the potential to transform health care is an eﬀective model of primary care
less dependent on costly drugs and technological intervention, one which also explicitly promotes
improvements in health.
The concept of a “disruptive innovation” was introduced to the business community by the
Christensen Institute in respect to an emerging technology representing a new market force combined
with a new value system that eventually displaces some, or all, of the current leading “stakeholders,
products and strategic alliances” [
]. This concept has more recently been extended to health care [
In order for a new technology to be considered a “disruptive innovation” in health care, the technology
must meet at least one of the following criteria: (1) It must cure disease; (2) transform the way medicine
is practiced; and/or (3) have an impact that could be disruptive or sustaining, depending on how it is
integrated into the current healthcare marketplace. Examples of candidate disruptive innovations in
health care are few, and none have yet proven to be fully disruptive, (e.g., gene-targeted therapies
and electronic health records have unmet promise) [
]. Little research or discussion has considered
innovative models of health care delivery or a re-shuﬄing of therapeutic approaches to those with
lower costs as potential disruptors.
Naturopathy is a distinct system of traditional and complementary medicine (T and CM)
recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) [
]. The educational model for naturopathy
is similar to that in allopathic medical training with its foundation in biomedical physiology and
diagnostics. However a unique attribute of naturopathy is a reprioritization of the order of therapeutics
(Figure 1), ﬁrst emphasizing lifestyle-oriented self-care, preventive behaviors, nutrition, physical
activity, and stress-management counseling before moving on to clinical nutrition (i.e., targeting
pharmacologic actions by nutrients for speciﬁc diseases irrespective of nutrient status), herbal medicine,
homeopathy, and hands-on manual therapies—all rather than emphasizing over-the-counter and
prescription drug therapies or surgical interventions [
]. There are eight accredited colleges of
naturopathy in North America, all of which utilize a primary care foundation of medical education,
including outpatient pharmacy and pharmacology training [
]. In the United States, naturopathy
is licensed in 20 states, the Washington District of Columbia (D.C.) and the territories of Puerto Rico
and the U.S. Virgin Islands [
]. Third-party insurance coverage for naturopathy varies by state
jurisdiction and ranges from minimal coverage (e.g., California) to legislatively mandated coverage
(e.g., Washington State) [
]. Select states (e.g., Washington, Oregon, and Connecticut) include
some reimbursement to naturopathic doctors through Medicaid, and naturopathic doctors practice in
established community-care organizations and/or federally-qualiﬁed health centers.
An evidence-informed argument is made below that naturopathy is, or has the potential to become,
a disruptive innovation in health care in the United States by meeting all three of the Christensen
criteria. Table 1compares potential disruptive innovations from naturopathy and current conventional
biomedicine. As outlined below, a “naturopathic” model of primary care—focused on self-care, the
minimal use of costly prescription drugs, and being patient-centered—is a testing ground for achieving
the “triple aim” in health care and ultimately disrupting the status quo of the health system.
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Medicina 2019, 55, x FOR PEER REVIEW 3 of 14
Figure 1. Hierarchy of typical therapeutics applied in naturopathy practice.
An evidence-informed argument is made below that naturopathy is, or has the potential to
become, a disruptive innovation in health care in the United States by meeting all three of the
Christensen criteria. Table 1 compares potential disruptive innovations from naturopathy and
current conventional biomedicine. As outlined below, a “naturopathic” model of primary care—
focused on self-care, the minimal use of costly prescription drugs, and being patient-centered—is a
testing ground for achieving the “triple aim” in health care and ultimately disrupting the status quo
of the health system.
Table 1. Comparison of potential disruptive technologies in naturopathic and allopathic primary care.
Genetic medicine, biologic therapies, gene
editing, robotic surgery, precision radiation
Chronic disease prevention, self-care and
Electronic Health Records, medical homes,
Patient-centered, prioritization of patient
preferences, experts in complementary
Integrated via guidelines and standards of
practice upon reaching a threshold of
evidence and provider acceptance
Integrated through insurance coverage,
“integrative” guideline development and co-
location of providers
Disruptive via marginalization but increased
consumer demand and market pressures
2. Criterion 1: A Disruptive Innovation Must Cure Disease
One of three potential criteria an innovation in healthcare must meet to be considered
“disruptive” is to cure disease. Though no clinical trials have been performed evaluating changes in
disease incidence from naturopathic practice or individual treatments, and naturopathy thus does
not meet this criterion as originally articulated, there are plentiful examples of therapeutics
commonly applied in naturopathic practice leading to robust changes in clinical status that could
alter the course of “incurable” chronic disease. Important for the potential disruption is that, in many
cases, the costs for the therapies recommended are outside of the prescriptive drug model and
typically include self-care and treatments classified as “dietary supplements” that are thus sold over
the counter or online. The disruption to health care is similar as to a cure because the costs previously
Active Clinical Health
Figure 1. Hierarchy of typical therapeutics applied in naturopathy practice.
Comparison of potential disruptive technologies in naturopathic and allopathic primary care.
Criterion Allopathy/Conventional Biomedicine Naturopathy/Naturopathic Medicine
Genetic medicine, biologic therapies, gene
editing, robotic surgery, precision radiation
Chronic disease prevention, self-care and
Electronic Health Records, medical homes,
Patient-centered, prioritization of patient
preferences, experts in complementary medicine
Integrated via guidelines and standards of
practice upon reaching a threshold of
evidence and provider acceptance
Integrated through insurance coverage,
“integrative” guideline development and
co-location of providers
Disruptive via marginalization but increased
consumer demand and market pressures
2. Criterion 1: A Disruptive Innovation Must Cure Disease
One of three potential criteria an innovation in healthcare must meet to be considered “disruptive”
is to cure disease. Though no clinical trials have been performed evaluating changes in disease
incidence from naturopathic practice or individual treatments, and naturopathy thus does not meet
this criterion as originally articulated, there are plentiful examples of therapeutics commonly applied
in naturopathic practice leading to robust changes in clinical status that could alter the course of
“incurable” chronic disease. Important for the potential disruption is that, in many cases, the costs for
the therapies recommended are outside of the prescriptive drug model and typically include self-care
and treatments classiﬁed as “dietary supplements” that are thus sold over the counter or online.
The disruption to health care is similar as to a cure because the costs previously directed into the system
via pharmaceutical sales are diverted to other businesses, leading to lost revenue to pharmaceutical
companies and insurance-based care delivery centers. Dietary supplements and self-care practices
already account for an estimated $12.8 billion and $2.7 billion, respectively, for out-of-pocket health
care expenditures per year [
]. To illustrate this point, we will discuss two costly chronic diseases
signiﬁcantly improved by therapies typically included in naturopathic practice: Depression and type
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Depression is another chronic condition that is not well treated by currently available drugs, that
drastically reduces health-related quality of life, and that carries an estimated economic cost in excess
of US $210 billion annually, with 50% of these costs attributable to work place losses [
]. Yoga and
St. John’s Wort, two typical naturopathic approaches for depression, have been extensively evaluated
for depression and meta-analyzed [
]. Findings for St. John’s Wort have speciﬁcally concluded
that it is eﬀective, comparable to drug therapy, and safer than drug therapy [
]. In addition to
positive meta-analyses, yoga has been speciﬁcally evaluated in the workplace and appears eﬃcacious
for depression [
], including in employees with chronic pain [
]. Thus, by oﬀering guidance on
self-care and non-drug interventions, naturopathic practice models have the potential to disrupt the
current treatment paradigm and to reduce reimbursement for other primary care, pharmacy and
mental health services.
Type 2 diabetes is a costly drain on the health care system, with estimates from the United States
suggesting diabetes and its complications costs in excess of $400 billion per year, or approximately one
of every three health care dollars spent [
]. Notably, therapies typically recommended in naturopathic
], including yoga [
], omega-3 fatty acids [
], cinnamon [
], chromium [
and carbohydrate reduction [
], all have robust clinical trial and/or meta-analysis support for eﬃcacy
in reducing clinical risk factors in type 2 diabetes. Additionally, composite outcomes from naturopathic
] and demonstration projects [
] have led to sustained improvements in glucose control and
self-care behaviors, similar to intensive interventions tested in clinical trials [
]. If scaled eﬀectively,
shifting therapies toward these out-of-pocket expenditures would disrupt pharmaceutical company
revenues, which account for the highest proportional cost of all diabetes services .
Research to date has not evaluated a “cure” as an outcome from naturopathic practice, and in fact,
very few “cures” exist in medicine at all. While curing disease (and arguably preventing or correcting
the course of a chronic disease) would be disruptive, redirecting potential revenue away from service
delivery centers, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies generally is equivalently disruptive and
far more achievable. Naturopathic practice represents an eﬀort to improve patient outcomes and
redirect the course of chronic diseases, and, as an extension, they could become disruptive if allowed
to scale and operate independently of the current system (see Criterion 3 below).
3. Criterion 2: A Disruptive Innovation Must Transform Elements of Clinical Practice
A second criteria an innovation in health care must meet to be considered “disruptive” is that it
must transform elements of clinical practice [
]. Naturopathy transforms clinical practice by modeling a
patient-centered approach, which manifests as longer patient visits, the delivery of pragmatic self-care
recommendations, the inclusion of non-drug/non-surgical options, and a strong consideration of patient
preferences in care [
]. The end result is consumer-oriented and includes lateral decision-making
through the creation of a functional patient–provider team (in contrast to the current top-down approach
that leaves the patient with a low locus of control over their care). Notably, improved physician–patient
communications impact adherence to evidence-based practice recommendations, improve patient
outcomes in heart disease [
], and improve the delivery of preventive services in primary care [
thus, care delivery models that encourage stronger physician–patient relationships are worthy of
attention by both insurers and health policy makers because of their potential to reduce costs.
In addition to the form of a typical naturopathic patient visit, the function of a typical visit also
varies considerably from allopathic care. Despite similarities between naturopathy and biomedicine
in the basic structure of the clinical intake and interview format (i.e., a history of present illness
including its attributes, review of systems, medical history, diagnosis and prognosis, etc.), the reach of a
typical interview also extends to contributory lifestyle factors, such as physical activity history, dietary
pattern, stress management; psychosocial stress, including social determinants of health; detailed
medication and dietary supplements reviews; a consideration of relevant environmental exposures at
work and at home; clinical prevention strategies including vaccination history, screenings and use of
personal protective equipment; and, often, an extensive sleep and digestive history. Fundamentally,
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the goal of many naturopathic care visits is to identify behaviors, self-care strategies, and modiﬁable
environmental and contextual factors that patients can change in order to improve their health and/or
function and reduce their dependency on drugs and higher-force interventions [44,48].
Existing observational practice outcomes and clinical trial data support the eﬃcacy of naturopathy
for multiple high morbidity chronic health conditions including: cardiovascular risk, hypertension,
depression, anxiety, low back pain, and type 2 diabetes [
]. Of note, none of the clinical
studies of naturopathy cited included the use of prescription drug therapies in the tested intervention.
Changes of this type, i.e., the eﬀective management of chronic conditions without intensiﬁed drug
therapy, are contrary to most current medical standards of care for non-communicable diseases [
Because type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases such as cancer, chronic pulmonary diseases,
and kidney disease have a fundamental behavioral component, a model of clinical training and practice
with the potential to modify patient behavior and inﬂect the course of patients’ prognosis has great
potential to disrupt the status quo. In the context of type 2 diabetes, changes in clinical risk factor
control during naturopathic care are accompanied by important improvements in patient mood and
self-eﬃcacy for change, with concurrent improvements in self-care, including glucose monitoring,
dietary change, and physical activity [
]. Depression frequently co-occurs with diabetes [
is an established barrier to improved self-care and medication adherence [
]. Therefore, impacting
mood and self-eﬃcacy, with parallel improvements in self-care strategies with established mortality
beneﬁts [57–59], holds great promise to inﬂuence the long-term disease trajectory of type 2 diabetes.
Naturopathy is both traditional and innovative in its application of evidence. Though critics often
state there is “no evidence” or too limited evidence for naturopathy, the reality is much more nuanced,
and, in many cases, this criticism is not valid. The evidence for naturopathy is not limited to trials of
individual drugs; rather, it is sourced from multiple disciplines including clinical trials of individual
nutrients, dietary interventions, botanical medicines, mind–body practices, and manual medicine
and rehabilitation interventions, with evolving practice models steeped in behavioral sciences [
In addition, naturopathy derives evidence from the traditional and historical use of practices like
botanical medicine, homeopathy, and hydrotherapy, which, similar to the implementation of many
surgical interventions, preceded the advance of evidence-based medicine paradigms. Though case
reports, case series, and expert opinions are considered “weak” or “low quality” evidence, the
accumulation of case reports and Delphi-process guided consensus statements have made important
contributions to the foundation of an evidence base, as well as clinical guidelines. One speciﬁc example
in primary care is the Eighth Joint National Committee (JNC-8) hypertension management guideline,
in which six of the nine core recommendations rely on expert opinion as their evidence base .
Delays in the translation of new research into practice is a barrier to improvements in clinical
care that has been recognized by the National Institutes of Health [
]. In some cases, naturopathic
doctors apply evidence that may not otherwise be translated. For example, the United States Preventive
Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends moderate-intensity face-to-face diet and lifestyle counseling
by primary care providers to those patients at risk for cardiovascular disease with Grade B evidence [
yet national statistics are very poor for the delivery of this advice in conventional biomedicine [
Conversely, recommendations consistent with USPSTF guidance are evident in most patient visits
with naturopathic doctors [
]. Thus, the inclusion of naturopathic care may assist in the
delivery of evidence-based preventive services and can improve quality assessments by helping more
facilities meet preventive care guidelines. Furthermore, it is constructive to consider the virtues
of naturopathy as a nimble practice model for the more rapid translation of evidence into practice,
especially evidence related to dietary, nutrient, physical activity, and herbal treatments, plus evidence
of harms of prescription drugs.
Naturopathic doctors are also much less likely to use prescription medications as treatment, even
when these drugs are included in their scope of practice [
]. Because of diﬀerences in their application
of therapies and a philosophical aversion to prescription drug therapy in practice, naturopathic doctors
are positioned to be more discerning with their use of prescription drugs, more likely to follow standard
Medicina 2019,55, 603 6 of 14
of care guidelines for the use of drugs, and thus less likely to contribute to unnecessary prescribing (e.g.,
antibiotics for viral upper respiratory tract infections [
]), therefore potentially reducing iatrogenic
causes of illness or death. Notably, most harms of medications are not discovered during Food and
Drug Administration (FDA)-regulated phase three clinical trials (often upheld as the gold standard for
evidence) but rather are discovered through post-approval epidemiologic surveillance (e.g., in 2014
there were 528,192 new case reports of a serious or fatal outcome from FDA-approved prescription
or over-the-counter drugs [
]), which is heavily dependent on provider and patient reporting, with
the costs of identiﬁed harms passed directly on to insurers and patients [
research is gaining importance as the harms associated with prescription drugs are identiﬁed and
centers attempt to eliminate unproven procedures and practices [
]. Given iatrogenic errors are
now considered the third largest cause of death in the United States [
], additional discretion in the
use of prescription drugs is long overdue and is exempliﬁed by naturopathic practice.
These deviations, i.e., less reliance on prescription drugs and reduced referrals to specialists, disrupt
the business models of hospitals, large group specialty practices, surgical centers, and pharmacies,
and they shift health care expenditures to other “wellness” services, thus contributing to multiple
4. Criterion 3: A Disruptive Innovation Will Disrupt or Sustain Depending on Its Integration
The third criterion to be met for a technology to be considered “disruptive” in health care is not
a criterion of the technology but rather a criterion that is determined by the reaction of the current
market/technology to the candidate disruptor (i.e., whether or not the technology disrupts depends
on whether or not it is incorporated into the status quo). Naturopathy has been at a crossroads
with “mainstream” conventional biomedicine for hundreds of years, with evidence and arguments
advocating for a relationship of opposition, integration or medical pluralism [76,77].
Present reactions to naturopathy within biomedicine suggest there is resistance to its articulation
within current care delivery models, and instead a reaction of simultaneous marginalization (by not
including naturopathy in most medical centers or insurances) and co-optation (by adopting practices)
appears more common. The invention of “integrative medicine” illustrates this point. Though the
deﬁnition of integrative medicine varies (common deﬁnitions of “integrative medicine” include:
conventional providers who adopt complementary therapies into their practices; care models that
include both conventional and complementary care disciplines oﬀered by diﬀerent providers in one
setting; and/or coordination between providers of diﬀerent disciplines, including complementary
medicine), in this context, it generally includes a merging of conventional care and complementary care.
The creation of a recognized integrative medicine specialty board qualiﬁcation exclusive to medical
doctors can be interpreted as a reaction to the possible threat of naturopathy redirecting patients (and
revenue) from conventional care centers. Notably, the philosophy of “integrative medicine” [
nearly identical to that of naturopathy, despite its more recent creation [45,79,80].
Other evidence suggesting conventional biomedicine will resist the inclusion of naturopathy
includes positions by major medical societies and allopathic physician advocacy foundations to
prioritize opposition to naturopathy licensure and scope expansion [
]. However, this strategy is
already proving ineﬀective. Limiting the geographic range of naturopathy licensure simply directs
consumers across state lines and already contributes to an emerging medical tourism market on the
west coast of the United States .
Implying a requisite separation between science and naturopathy, published editorials refuse
to label an intervention for cardiovascular risk reduction derived of naturopathic care that designed
and implemented by naturopathic doctors as “naturopathic,” instead insisting it must be labeled
“science-based lifestyle advice” [
]. Additional examples include editorials claiming the nutritional
guidance oﬀered in naturopathic practice as being the unique role of dieticians [
] and conventional
medical news outlets haranguing naturopathy as pseudoscientiﬁc and dangerous without providing
Medicina 2019,55, 603 7 of 14
speciﬁc examples [
]. These examples suggest opponents are emphasizing scope of practice
protection rather than embracing cooperation around a shared goal to improve patient outcomes.
The insurance reimbursement of naturopathy is also a strong determinant in the “integration”
that may contribute to naturopathy’s fate. By controlling provider reimbursement and regulating the
delivery of services, insurance credentialing and reimbursement for naturopathy may actually stiﬂe its
growth, compared to more disruptive cash-based, fee-for-service models or health insurance co-ops
leveraging long-term investments in prevention.
Ironically, a fundamental method to ensure naturopathy does not evolve as a disruptive technology
is to embrace the inclusion of naturopathic care in current models of care delivery rather than resist or
attempt to prevent its inclusion. Not unlike the current leaders in the hybrid car market (e.g., Toyota),
a delay in the adoption of hybrid and electric car technologies by other vendors (e.g., US car makers)
enabled them to establish their brand and grow their customer base, leading directly to the establishment
of a dominant market share (e.g., the Prius
) and, thus, the power to heavily inﬂuence the future of
the market. Extending this analogy back to naturopathy, a failure by health care vendors to embrace
the public’s growing interest in naturopathy and complementary medicine generally is allowing
naturopathy to gain market share by delivering a consumer-oriented model of primary care that is
mostly external to mainstream medical centers. To illustrate the potential impact of the inclusion vs.
exclusion of naturopathy from the current market, consider a hospital center that includes naturopathy
compared to one that does not. The hospital that includes naturopathy can create quality standards
around provider credentialing; can place limits the scope of practice, including orders and prescribing;
can limit indications for referrals; and can control the overall patient experience within the health
center. Maintaining clinical services in-house also increases the likelihood of internal referrals to
specialty care. However, a hospital center that does not include naturopathy faces competition from
community-based naturopathic clinics, which may provide a highly variable experience in the quality of
treatment and care, as well as re-direct potential revenue outside of the hospital. Surveys in Washington
State that compared patient satisfaction provided a speciﬁc example of naturopathic medical centers
outperforming nearly all biomedical care facilities [
]. These community-based naturopathic clinics
operate beyond hospital control and are much less likely to route customers to the hospital for specialty
care or other clinical services. This scenario also reinforces aspects of Criterion 2; by transforming
the care experience and challenging elements of the typical care delivery process, other providers’
clinical practices are disrupted with subsequent implications for inter-professional collaboration and
team-based care, as has been seen in other settings .
Many characteristics of naturopathy appear to mirror those characteristics sought by the public
in their health care [
]; therefore, the survival and growth of naturopathy in the healthcare market
appears highly likely. However, the degree and rate of naturopathy’s disruption will also depend on
the availability of new research that demonstrates eﬀectiveness and patient-centeredness, increased
public awareness of their choices in prevention-based primary care and natural health specialty
services, increased access to naturopathy, and whether there is robust integration into current health
5. Disruptive Innovations Leverage New Values, and Create New Markets
Leveraging new values in a marketplace is only one aspect of a truly disruptive innovation; another
aspect is the creation of (or contribution to) new markets. Naturopathy supports emerging markets in
several ways, including supporting the development of “wellness”-based economic models of health
care delivery through referrals to clinical providers not yet incorporated into mainstream health centers
(e.g., massage therapists, yoga therapists, acupuncturists, and health coaches), recommendations for
health products not widely available in mainstream pharmacies, clinics and hospitals (e.g., dietary
supplements, homeopathic remedies, herbal medicines, and natural health products), and the use
of exercise and other movement-based facilities not widely accessible via mainstream rehabilitation
centers (e.g., gyms, health spas, and yoga studios). In the United States alone, the out-of-pocket
Medicina 2019,55, 603 8 of 14
expenditures on complementary and integrative health services exceed $30.2 billion [
]. An additional
contribution to the “wellness” economy, albeit not easily quantiﬁable, is the contribution of naturopathy
to the food industry through guidance toward organic, natural foods. The recent purchase of Whole
Foods natural food markets by Amazon, Inc. for $13.7 billion speaks to the growing economic force
and market share held by the natural food industry .
While these statistics are largely derived from United States, there is reason to believe the disruption
caused by naturopathy is not limited to the United States, or North America. Public use of and
out-of-pocket expenditures for complementary and alternative health services have increased globally [
In Australia, for example, available data suggest at least 44.1% of Australians visited a complementary
medicine practitioner within the previous 12 months, with similar numbers of visits to complementary
and alternative medicine practitioners compared to conventional medical practitioners (69.3 million),
with an estimated annual expenditure of $4.13 billion Australian dollars (US $3.12 billion) .
Simply redirecting some proportion of the public’s available out-of-pocket health care expenditures
toward a diﬀerent segment of health care providers and products alone does not create a viable
market—some measurable beneﬁt or eﬀect of this redistribution must also be created. An emerging case
exists that not only do expenditures toward naturopathic care prove cost-eﬀective, the contributions
of naturopathy may constitute a “value added” to the workplace. For example, a clinical trial
of naturopathy for primary cardiovascular disease prevention demonstrated eﬀectiveness and
cost-eﬀectiveness, with a decisive contribution to cost savings being reductions in work place
presenteeism (a confusing term, “presenteeism” is working while sick or with otherwise reduced
physical and/or emotional function [
]), not the direct costs of the care provided [
]. Some authors
have extended the potential of the value added by naturopathy to posit it has greater potential to
reduce escalating costs in the developed and developing world due to its emphasis on prevention and
patient self-management in the context of an escalating prevalence of non-communicable diseases [
Some critics have argued that the additional expenditures on complementary and integrative
health services are a “double-dip” by the public (i.e., many people use complementary medicine
providers concurrent to their primary care providers), leading to excess medical spending. Though
there is limited evidence available on this topic, in states where naturopathic doctors are licensed as
primary care providers (e.g., Washington state), over utilization does not appear to occur and people
who use complementary medicine providers tend to be in better health, have fewer diagnostic tests
and attend fewer costly specialty visits .
Perhaps the greatest potential for disrupting the dominant market force in medicine is the
ephemeral promise of chronic disease prevention through the routine delivery of primary prevention
services and by optimizing and scaling behavior change strategies. Historically, investment in
prevention by third-party payers has been limited by the expectation of a ﬁve-year return on investment
(ROI), which simply is not possible for prevention strategies targeting chronic disease, from which the
ROI is likely 20 or 30 years away from the point(s) of intervention. Again, type 2 diabetes provides an
illustrative case example for this point. The individual level costs of type 2 diabetes are estimated at
$85,200.00 per person, translating into an approximate cost of $1.7 trillion for the 20 million adults
in the United States with type 2 diabetes (not accounting for increasing costs of treatment, disease
prevalence, or the economic losses from increased workplace absenteeism and presenteeism) [
Thus, the redirection of even 1% of the direct costs of diabetes care toward primary prevention-oriented
clinical services would create a new US$ 17 billion market.
While naturopathy has not demonstrated the ability to “cure” or “prevent” type 2 diabetes
in clinical trials, the practices recommended during naturopathic consultations for type 2 diabetes
are consistent with the recommendations in the Diabetes Prevention Program [
], as they engage
on multiple behavioral barriers to lifestyle change, translate into improved self-care, and appear to
lower blood glucose [
]. Combining those changes with reduced primary cardiovascular disease
] may create a signiﬁcant inﬂection point in a patients’ health/risk trajectory for multiple
chronic diseases. Additionally, although evidence is still quite limited, at least two herbal medicine
Medicina 2019,55, 603 9 of 14
products have clinical trial evidence for diabetes prevention [
], and numerous nutrient or herbal
interventions used in naturopathic practice have evidence for lowering blood glucose or otherwise
impacting diabetes-related risk [
]. Thus, naturopathy oﬀers several desirable health products
to the savvy consumer, including multiple categories of evidence-based therapeutic interventions not
routinely delivered in conventional biomedicine, with overarching goals of primary prevention and
functional health improvement—all of which hold great promise for creating inﬂection points in the
health trajectory for people with diabetes.
6. Conclusions and Future Directions
By meeting all three criteria outlined by the Christensen Institute, naturopathy appears to
constitute a disruptive innovation in health care. If optimized, the model of health care represented
by naturopathy has the potential to surpass allopathic care (in its current form) as a dominant model
of primary care by representing patient- and family-centered values in care delivery, a focus on
prevention, and the de-emphasis on pharmaceuticals and elective surgery in favor of pragmatic
self-care behaviors, lifestyle practices, and natural treatments. Notably, promoting healthy self-care
behaviors, de-emphasizing costly technologies that do not improve outcomes, and becoming more
judicious in the use of prescription drugs are all known opportunities to achieve the triple aim [
Thus, naturopathy may contribute to wider-ranging health service goals. Whether these changes
occur due to market pressures encouraging biomedical care providers and academic training centers
to change their model or due to naturopathic doctors playing an increasing role in care delivery
remains uncertain. Given the many barriers to rapid change in allopathic models of training and care
delivery, reductions in public trust of managed care [
], and an increasing number of deaths
attributable to medical errors, perhaps it is time to embrace the approach represented by naturopathy
and actively seek to incorporate it more widely rather than marginalize its role. As common diagnostic
and treatment algorithms become increasingly accessible through mobile applications and artiﬁcial
intelligence, the survival of biomedical primary care may require it to redeﬁne itself and mirror the
values, if not the interventions, represented by modern naturopathy.
Conﬂicts of Interest: There are no conﬂicts of interest to declare.
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