Researcher Spotlight: Associate Professor Matthew Leach of the National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine
Associate Professor Matthew Leach is a registered nurse and naturopath who has earned an international reputation for his achievements in health services research. He has made a significant contribution to the field of health services specifically through his research in evidence-based practice, integrative healthcare and rural health.
Matthew is a highly accomplished researcher in health workforce and services planning, as well as healthcare education. His expertise in these areas is particularly valuable in developing a workforce capable of addressing the health care needs of a growing and everchanging population.
We spoke with Matthew about his role as Deputy Director of Education at the National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine (NCNM), and about how he sees conventional medicine and naturopathic medicine coming together to provide best practice care.
Q: What inspired you to follow a career in naturopathic medicine?
I have always had a strong passion to work in health. It wasn’t until I started practicing nursing that my interest in naturopathic medicine began. As a nurse, I felt like I couldn’t adequately meet all of my patient’s needs - there seemed to be something missing from what I could offer my patients. During my graduate year, I met a colleague who was studying something called naturopathy. I didn’t know what naturopathy was back then, but I was really intrigued by the principles of the discipline - holism, patient-centredness, supporting the person’s innate healing ability, and addressing the underlying causes of a complaint.
The principle that resonated the most for me was addressing the underlying cause as it looked beyond just managing or suppressing symptoms. I subsequently went on to study naturopathy. It was interesting to view health from the other side of the fence, but I felt somewhat challenged by the science versus tradition paradigms. In particular, I struggled with the lack of robust scientific evidence to support most of the treatments I had access to in my naturopathic practice. It was at that time that I thought I could do something about this, which led me to undertake an honours degree and a PhD to try and build naturopathic medicine as an evidence-based discipline.
Q: What was it like going from nursing to naturopathy?
It was interesting taking the leap from nursing to naturopathy. The decision definitely addressed a need within me to improve patient health outcomes as it gave me a greater scope of practice and helped me to make a more noticeable impact on a person’s overall health. However, I still struggled with the science versus tradition dilemma. While I was able to integrate much of the naturopathic training into my nursing practice, I could not be open about my training as naturopathic medicine was still seen as very fringe at that time. Put simply, I was diving into a profession that was poorly understood by most people, had very little professional standing, and respect from other health practitioners was low.
I practiced nursing for 16 years and clinical naturopathy for 10 years and tried to bring the two fields together where I could. There were parallels between the two fields, but it was challenging. Whilst deeper conversations about what was really going on for the patient, including what they were taking and why, were valuable, it was not always achievable to integrate naturopathic principles and treatments into biomedical settings or within a nursing model of care.
Q: What interests you about naturopathic education?
I am glad that the education standard for naturopathic medicine is a degree qualification, which is on par with most health disciplines. However, I am concerned that these degrees are still very vocational in nature, and don’t necessarily prepare graduates for much beyond private practice.
If naturopathic medicine wants to be less marginalised and more mainstream, the profession needs to take a stand and think about its unique position within healthcare teams and the healthcare system more generally. Existing degree programs don’t really prepare graduates to think at that level.
The opportunity I have in my position at NCNM is to facilitate change by asking ‘where is it that we would like to be’, rather than settling for the status quo. We would like to see a profession that is making a significant contribution to the health care system and be recognised as invaluable players within that system. In order to do that, we need to build educational programs to empower leaders to think critically about who we are as a profession and how we can intercept with other players.
I think it is a very different approach to what the profession has seen in the past, but we want to produce graduates who are capable of providing best practice care in private practice, but also within multi-disciplinary teams across other settings.
Q: What aspect of your position excites you the most?
I am excited by the opportunity to facilitate change in naturopathic medicine education – to think outside the box. We have a real opportunity here to create pathways to build leaders and change agents within the industry. Our vision is to create the next generation of naturopaths, which have a solid foundation in evidence-based practice, critical enquiry and clinical reasoning.
Q: What does your educational framework mean for naturopathic practitioners, students and the profession?
A lot of the research I have done over the past few decades has been about improving health outcomes through the delivery of best-practice care. This work has shaped our educational framework, which is underpinned by evidence-based practice, but also integrative health care, patient-centredness, clinical reasoning and clinical judgement - all of which are viewed through a naturopathic lens. The objective is to get people to think more critically, to be more reflective, and to constantly strive to improve themselves, their practice, their profession and the health of their patients and communities.
Q: What is the most change-making aspect of naturopathic medicine for the wider health care system?
I have always considered naturopathic medicine practitioners as the detectives on the health care team. They are among only a few health professions that spend considerable time ‘interviewing’ patients and their families, ‘interrogating’ the patient’s health history, and ‘investigating’ the patient’s needs, values and preferences. Naturopathic medicine practitioners also seek to understand the whole person and the whole situation in order to identify the ‘perpetrators’ of ill health so they can deliver the most appropriate courses of action. The educational programs offered through NCNM aim to build upon and consolidate these skills and attributes to enable practitioners to deliver best practice care to their patients and communities.