Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday signed into law a bill that creates a licensing board to regulate naturopaths, alternative medicine practitioners who have fought for two decades for the right to be licensed in the same way as medical professionals.
The bill, pushed through on the Legislature’s final day, stirred controversy as opponents — primarily the Massachusetts Medical Society — said licensure would grant legitimacy to practices that are merely “a combination of nutritional advice, home remedies, and discredited treatments.”
But naturopaths and their supporters said the legislation will ensure that only qualified people call themselves naturopaths. The governor agreed. “This legislation,” said Baker spokesman Billy Pitman, “ensures an independent professional licensing board is able to implement minimum standards, education, and quality of care in a growing, yet unregulated field.”
Naturopaths do not attend conventional medical schools, instead learning their craft at naturopathic colleges. They employ herbs, supplements, and homeopathic remedies; perform physical manipulation of body structures and tissues; and advise on nutrition and lifestyle changes.
When the law takes effect Sept. 1, Massachusetts will join 18 other states and Washington, D.C., in licensing naturopathy, including all bordering states except Rhode Island. About 50 naturopaths practice in Massachusetts.
Amy Rothenberg, president of the Massachusetts Society of Naturopathic Doctors, said in a statement that naturopaths “are thrilled to join the ranks of providers in the state.”
“We applaud Charlie Baker and the legislative process that studied and vetted this profession for over 20 years and came to understand the unique role that naturopathic doctors can play in the state,” she said, adding that naturopaths bring “expertise in both preventive medicine and natural integrative care.”
Dr. James S. Gessner, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said in a statement Wednesday that “licensing is likely to be perceived by the public as an endorsement of an area of care that lacks rigorous medical training and standards of care, and offers few if any treatments based on clinical and scientific evidence.”
But he said he was gratified the law prohibits naturopaths from prescribing and ordering medications, using the term “physician,” and portraying themselves as primary care providers.
The law also requires naturopaths to refer unimmunized children to physicians.
The law creates a five-member licensing board comprising two naturopaths, a physician, a clinical pharmacologist, and a member of the public, to operate within the Department of Public Health.
Practitioners who offer naturopathic treatments are not required to obtain a license, but only those who have a license will be allowed to call themselves naturopaths. Licensing requirements will include graduation from an approved naturopathic college and passing an examination.
Jann J. Bellamy, a Florida attorney who founded the Campaign for Science-Based Health Care to educate the public about alternative medicine claims, criticized the Massachusetts law for giving naturopaths broad powers to diagnose and treat any condition.
“They are well-known for diagnosing fake diseases with dubious lab tests and treating real diseases and conditions with substandard remedies like homeopathy,” Bellamy said in an e-mail.