Legislation would expand naturopathic medical practice

Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2004

If a patient comes to see Fairbanks doctor Scott Luper with a small laceration, he can't stitch it up. Though Luper has a medical degree from an accredited school, Alaska law doesn't allow him to perform minor surgery or prescribe drugs because he is a naturopathic physician.

He must send patients to colleagues practicing conventional medicine - allopathic doctors - and he supports a proposal to change that.

"It's inconvenient and expensive for (patients) to have to go to another physician to have to get an antibiotic or hormone prescription filled when we're perfectly well trained," Luper said.

Granting naturopathic doctors permission to do more is one possible approach to shrinking the lines in conventional doctors' waiting rooms, though some doctors say it's unwise.

Luper testified Wednesday before the House Labor and Commerce Committee in support of a bill that would allow naturopathic doctors to perform minor surgery and prescribe drugs with a license. House Bill 434 also would require naturopathic doctors to receive continuing education.

"We're asking to be able to practice up to the level of our education," Luper told the committee.

Like allopathic physicians, naturopathic doctors attend accredited medical schools for four years. Besides basic biomedical sciences such as physiology, biochemistry and anatomy, they take classes in subjects such as homeopathy, botanicals and therapeutic nutrition - the hallmarks of what they call holistic healing.

Luper said naturopathic physicians are recognized in the medical field as experts in reactions between drugs and nutrients.

But Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer and committee co-chairman, said he was concerned about allowing naturopathic doctors to prescribe drugs when they commonly stock and sell naturopathic medicines in their offices.

Luper said naturopaths will stock medicines and herbs that are not available locally so that their patients can have access to them.

Dr. Alex Malter, a Juneau doctor and president of the Alaska State Medical Association, argued in written testimony that training for naturopaths is not as rigorous as training for conventional doctors.

"Its emphasis on natural healing does not allow adequate opportunity for its students to fully learn the accepted pathology, physiology and pharmacology necessary to safely treat most medical conditions," Malter wrote. "... ASMA believes that Alaska would be better served by the Legislature spending its time and resources in helping Alaska to attract appropriately trained physicians in sufficient numbers to provide care to our citizens."

Bill sponsor Rep. Jim Holm, R-Fairbanks, said the bill would help address the state's shortage of physicians that practice conventional medicine.

Luper estimated there are about 20 practicing naturopaths in Alaska, serving about 30,000 patients a year.

Committee chairman Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage, appointed a subcommittee headed by Gatto to look at several issues raised during the hearing. He asked the subcommittee to look at compromises to appease ASMA, to review the section regarding minor surgery and to look into the ethics of physicians selling medications out of their offices.

The committee will discuss the bill again Feb. 25.

• Masha Herbst can be reached at masha.herbst@juneauempire.com.

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