Ask Surly Amy: A Degree in Naturopathy


Dear Surly Amy,

I have a problem that I’m not certain how to respond to.  A dear friend and occasional lover has recently been accepted into the Doctorate of Naturopathy program at the National College of Natural Medicine, and is proudly telling everyone that she’s going to “be a doctor” in 5 years.  I want to be a supportive part of her life, but I think that naturopathy is complete and utter nonsense.  I have encouraged her to apply to an actual medical school, but she has replied that it is too expensive.  How do I support her without supporting fallacious beliefs?



Dear Molly,

This is heartbreaking because I understand how expensive school can be and it sounds like your friend has a real desire to do some good in the world as well as a genuine desire to learn, which should be commended.

everything will be okThis question also does a great job of illustrating the heart of the problem with healthcare, especially in the United States. It’s a class issue. We want health care for ourselves and our families, and we want doctors who will take the time to listen to our problems and will care about our well-being, but most average people simply can not afford that. Even with insurance I often hear people feeling hopeless when it comes to their health. I myself have felt more like a number than a human being when visiting a doctor and rushed through an office visit. And I know a lot of intelligent people who have turned to alternative medicine because they couldn’t afford a regular doctor visit or because they too felt rushed or dismissed or misunderstood by their primary care providers. Legitimate healthcare, with the emphasis in care and science, in today’s market has become a luxury that is placed upon a pedestal for the wealthy.

Higher education can also seem like an unattainable luxury for the average person.

We have here what seems to be a genuinely, kind person, who wants to help other people, but the only way they think they can afford to do that is by taking a lesser or alternative path. Alternative medicine schools are obviously more welcoming to students in terms of accessibility than an accredited medical college. Just as alternative medicine practices are often times more welcoming to patients. In similar ways these establishments target people in need of hope but what they provide it lesser than what is deserved. People desever quality healthcare, quality education and at the very least, the truth.


My advice in this situation is to be supportive but to also point your friend in the direction of science based medicine. Perhaps with some gentle encouragement you can counter some of what is being taught in your friend’s new school and convince them to transfer into a legitimate science-based medical college after some time.  Let your friend know that there are always options. A person can go to a less expensive community college for basic classes and then transfer to a different school later, or opt for school loans. I realize how difficult it can be when you don’t have any money for education, but it can be done. And remind your friend that the school they have enrolled in is not free either. There is certainly some money being spent, and ultimately in the end you get what you pay for. Hopefully, with some positive encouragement your friend will see that putting money towards a quality education, even though the path to get there might be harder and much slower, will ultimately pay off twice as much in the end.

Might I also suggest a legitimate science-based medical textbook as a back to school gift? It can’t hurt to have that information at hand.


*photos by me, Amy Davis Roth

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top of the page.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. The first thing that leaps to mind is from Futurama “You have a degree in baloney!”

    It’s not very helpful I’m afraid, and poking holes in your friends beliefs will probably do no more than cause resentment. If there was any way to introduce critical thinking without it being a direct attack on their beliefs I would try that, but I haven’t got any ideas on how to do that. Maybe get them to buy a used car and point out how too much trust can lead to disaster.

    Good luck.

  2. I really dig “Ask Surly Amy” and I’m so glad Amy still writes for Skepchick in addition to her beautiful artwork.

    My wife did a postgrad degree in Nutrition Medicine in order to understand where many of her patients who were into this stuff were coming from. This was after many years as a GP and a firm foundation in science based medicine. The point being that I was able to see a lot of the course material.

    My take was that there is a mixture of valuable science based stuff as well as obvious outright quackery and woo. For instance, it was true that selenium supplements for cancer were a thing at one time, I think now disproven.

    Maybe show an interest in the course material and point the friend towards sites like Steve Novella’s and Science Based Medicine (not forgetting the Mayo Clinic and actually Wikipedia is usually a reasonable source to start with) – with a view to encouraging a critical approach to the material presented.

    With a bit of luck the friend may become interested in science based medicine and see the error of her ways.

    1. A lot of alternative medicine once had a point, and some of it was even a mainstream medical idea at one point. Even homeopathy, well, nothing is still better than what 18th-century medicine did.

  3. I’ve seen a lot of real medical schools offer naturopathy courses these days. Oh, it’s often required. (In short, a way to screw students out of more money.) SBM wrote about it a while back.

    There is a serious concern wrt: the cost of an education, though. Like the cost of health care (also something I would consider a basic human right), it’s just going up. And it has to do with the predominant penny wise and pound foolish ideology in politics these days.

  4. No. Your friend needs to have some understanding of how bogus the Naturopathy degree is. Such programs prey on students. Only conscionceless mega-salesmen can hope to actually earn a living with such a degree, and they have to abandon any honesty about the limits of their practice to do so.

    Stephen Barrett has a source page on the subject:

    Your friend needs to know that her time and money are almost certain to be wasted; that the training she will receive is worthless; and that practicing on that basis will defraud her patients and prevent them from seeking effective care.

    Naturopathic organizations are active anti-vax promoters as well.

    There are educational resources in health-care that aren’t as enormously expensive and long term as medical school. Physical Therapy, Occupational therapy, various counselling trainings.

    There is a lot your friend could do in five years that would actually prepare her to earn a decent living providing ACTUAL help to her clients/patients.

  5. Your friend needs to know that her time and money are almost certain to be wasted; that…

    As well as the serious concern that if the very people that made it possible for this BS to be promoted, and go untouched, as anything other than some vague nonsense followed by a few people who, maybe, had some faith basis for them, ever got their heads out of their backsides and recognized that it is no different than psychic scams (which only get by with what they do, most of the time, due to a loophole where they can claim they are “entertaining”), she could find herself with a degree in nothing, and large parts of the government wanting to know just how much nothing she was doing, and for how much.

    I do not think, for one minute, that there isn’t going to be another shift, and this stuff won’t be pursued as exactly what it is – at best useless (in which case its fraud), at worst dangerous (in which case its practicing without a legally recognized license). The only reason, as I said, that its not already pursued as such is because there are clowns in congress, and special interest groups, protecting it, and no one with enough guts to make a case for why, even if seemingly harmless, its no different than telling someone you will change their luck, by reading tarot cards, for a lot of money.

  6. There are healthcare options other than the ones embracing what doesn’t work. For example, there’s physiotherapy; nursing; counselling; dentistry: paramedic..etry.. all kinds of stuff that needs training, are vastly skilled but perhaps not a prohibitively expensive medical degree.

    There’s no need to go down the route of woo for considerations of cost. There are lots of opportunities to help people.

  7. Medical school is crazy expensive. I was lucky because I went to a state school with in state tuition AND I received 10k/year in scholarship but I still walked out with almost 200k in debt.

    But there are alternatives for your friend.* These include physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners and APRNs. Or if your friend were interested in labor and delivery there are certified nurse midwives. Similarly, anesthesia has nurse anesthetists. There are many ways in which these careers are superior to the MD route: less debt, more flexibility, less training, more time with patients. While she doesn’t get to use the phrase “doctor in five years”, she will be able to help people.

    * Originally I had written “mid-level provider” is an alternative. After writing this I looked up links for mid-level providers to link to a good summary and instead found that this term is often seen as insulting to the people it is meant to describe. I now plan to stop using it but thought I would include the explanation here in case anyone was interested

  8. She could also get military scholarships for med school. she just has to spend 3-4 years giving back to the military. I worked well for my brother and his wife. There is also National Health service corps. She would just have to spend a few years working in an underserved area.

  9. Oh man, been there, done that. In 2004 I started an acupuncture program, because I too wanted to become a doctor. I wasn’t as concerned about the money as I was almost certain I didn’t have the chops to even do the science prerequisites to get in, and I was so depressed and miserable after my first career in education imploded I was ready to commit to just about anything to push away the despair and uncertainty. I figured this was a reasonable alternative to being a doctor. Boy was it ever not. Over 4 not inexpensive years I felt more and more like a joke, and the closer I got to graduation the more I dreaded having to go out and try to convince people that what I did was legit. While most of my teachers were reasonable if not scientifically trained, my clinical and pathophysiology teacher never met a form of paranoid woo he didn’t love, including straight up overt HIV denialism, anti-vax nuttery, etc. It as mortifying. When I did finally graduate with about $100k in debt, the real nightmare began, as I discovered that there are NO jobs and starting a practice takes time (and money!) On top of my ethical objections that made me feel like a slimy used car salesman every day, knowing that I had no idea how to really take care of patients. My school had all the trappings of doctor training, but it was actually kind of a scam propped up by Title IV funding–you end up with a degree that is, as someone once put it, the academic equivalent of a Ming vase–beautiful to look at, but useless and impractical in the actual world. The statistics for naturopathic practitioners is maybe a little better in some states like Washington with greater insurance parity, but I’d be willing to bet naturopaths don’t fare much better after graduation than acupuncturists. It matters.

    I stuck it out for a miserable year, and if I didn’t have a small inheritance to live off of I would have had to declare bankruptcy. I was one of the lucky ones though–my family was able to help me out of debt, and I went back to school to do it right. I’m now starting my first year of science-based medical school and couldn’t be happier or more excited for my future. The time and the money are worth it, if you really, really want to be a physician. If you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll get to the starting line. As several people have mentioned above, there are scholarships and loan forgiveness programs, and if you’re ambivalent about being a physician specifically (a huge red flag that you maybe shouldn’t go that route) there are lots of other roads into the clinical field, as mentioned, that make amazing careers, and profoundly change peoples’ lives for the better.

    I’m not sure how to tell you to talk to your friend, other than to urge her slow her roll and really explore ALL of her options before she makes a decision and signs on the dotted line. That includes how you’re going to get a job and pay down your debt after you’re done, where you’re limited to live/licensing laws, how you’ll save for retirement and whatever else you want to do with your life. I thought I had done my due diligence, but I wish someone had sat me down and lovingly but firmly made me work through this before I wasted so much time, money, energy, opportunity, etc. Best of luck, and I’ll be thinking of you!

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