Student Takes Naturopathic Advocacy Global at World Health Assembly

Griffin McMath, ND candidate at Bastyr University California, at the World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly.

Griffin McMath is someone for whom “leap and the net will appear” is not so much an inspirational quote, as it is a literal directive.

Since starting in the Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (ND) program at Bastyr University California in 2013, McMath has been working toward creating a strong global network for ND students.

As an intern at the Bastyr University Center for Health Policy and Leadership and a Global Health Policy Student Representative for Natural Doctors International, she already had been informing students on global health policy and representing students in the legislative world. But she felt called to bring naturopathic medicine and global health together in a more fundamental way. 

This January, McMath made a huge leap and bought a $1,400 plane ticket to Geneva, Switzerland. She would figure out the details, the necessary funds and how to secure a delegate position later; for now, McMath just had faith that she was going to attend the World Health Organization’s 68th World Health Assembly as a student representative of naturopathic medicine. 

‘Having a Seat at the Table’

“The World Health Organization (WHO) is the international public health ‘arm’ of the United Nations,” explains McMath. Every year the World Health Assembly gathers together top representatives and global health leaders to meet, develop relationships, review, analyze and brainstorm, and to create objectives with metrics and policies for WHO for the upcoming year.

In 2014, Tabatha Parker, ND, then a core faculty member at Bastyr University California, and Michael Cronin, ND, became the first naturopathic doctor delegates to attend the World Health Assembly. Their trip highlighted just how much McMath wanted to be a part of this burgeoning movement that was creating a role for naturopathic medicine on the international stage.

McMath was also highly motivated by the chance to bring back information and opportunities for her peers. “I didn’t care if I had to wait in the public admissions line outside the assembly at 4 a.m. every morning,” she says.

“Having a presence at the World Health Assembly means having a seat at the table, and a seat at the table means opportunity, access and connection.”

Sitting at the table in Geneva meant a chance to introduce global health leaders to a rapidly growing population of naturopathic medical students, and enable policy leaders and health care organizations to see the ever-increasing demand — and need — for naturopathic medical care.

Finding a Way to Switzerland

McMath’s first order of business was to set up an online fundraising account to drum up funds for the trip to Geneva, and to set up a network to share what she was learning with those back home. The initial response was heartening. Friends, family, Bastyr supporters and even strangers stepped up with support — both financial and moral.

Next, McMath would need to find a way to become a delegate. The plan was to find a group or federation that would allow her to sit as a delegate under their name. Dr. Parker, McMath’s mentor who had previously attended the World Health Assembly, reached out, and together they found what turned out to be a fortuitous partner: the World Federation of Chiropractic.

Even though their modalities were different, McMath found her partnership with her chiropractic cohorts to be especially fruitful.

“It was moving to see students who already had that international or global connection that I aspire for naturopathic students to have,” she says. “I was working with peers who will eventually be my colleagues, and we had very similar ideas about health and prevention, and ways to treat and care for a patient.”

Importance of Students in International Public Health

As she prepared for her trip and exchanged emails with student leaders from around the globe, McMath found that other students were just as eager to engage and formalize connections. It highlighted the momentum and the desire, for naturopathic students in particular, to be a part of international public health planning and policy.

“It shifts the culture of a profession when it starts in the student body,” says McMath. “And I think it’s especially important for students to become involved right now.”

“The ‘clay is wet,’ so to speak, and we are molding ourselves into the kind of doctors we want to be after graduation. Incorporating international health policy and public health helps us to become stronger professionals, for tomorrow, together.”

After a last-minute scramble to secure her trip funding (which happened to coincide with the fee deadline for her board exams) the day finally arrived to board the plane and put her planning and dreams into action.

Upon arrival, when McMath went with her colleagues to finally pick up their badges, she had an unforgettable moment:

“After a long day of travel, I looked up and saw that I was in a building with all the flags over my head, and it hit me: where I was, what I was doing … and that I was there because of the community supporting me.” 

She spent each day that week in small groups with naturopaths and other health professionals from around the globe. “Now I feel like I have a close group of mentors from around the world,” McMath says.

‘Naturopathic Medicine Deserves to Be Here’

McMath not only wanted to do her part to introduce naturopathic medicine to a meeting of prestigious international public health delegates, but also to stay focused on the next steps.

“We need to be a part of not just the conversation, but the plan. Sometimes we get so busy telling people who we are and what education we receive, or explaining why our patients deserve the same access to naturopathic doctors as they have to allopathic doctors.”

But being at World Health Assembly helps the conversation about naturopathic medicine progress, McMath says. 

“That was one of the most powerful take-aways for me: We wouldn’t be there unless other people also felt we needed to be there,” she says. “So we’re not only showing what naturopathic medicine is, or sending a message that naturopathic medicine deserves to be here — we're advancing the conversation about what role we can play within the worldwide strategy to address some of the world's most challenging health concerns.”

One of the main points of focus at this year’s World Health Assembly turned out to be on non-communicable diseases. “That’s where my ears really perked up,” says McMath.

As the modern world develops, with technology and obesity and many other health factors, chronic and non-communicable diseases have been on the rise.

“Yes, there are drugs, yes, there are therapies,” McMath says, “but as we globalize, some of these health considerations become more complex, and naturopathic doctors can be a big part of the solution in tackling these preventable diseases and these non-communicable diseases — around the world.”

Gratitude and Goosebumps

While reflecting on the trip, McMath takes a moment to make sure that it’s clear that the privilege and excitement of attending the World Health Assembly went far beyond her own personal or professional development:  “Maybe my leap of faith in attending the World Health Assembly was unique, but my passion and my sentiment, and my drive and interest are not. I’m honored to be among student colleagues who are just as passionate, driven, and doing incredible things.”

She is also full of gratitude for all of the encouragement and support she received from family, friends, and a key group of steadfast allies at Bastyr.

She says that when she looked up at those flags at the UN, “I didn’t feel alone. I had goosebumps because I was just a representation of the amazing student body we have here at Bastyr.” And if students like Griffin McMath are any indication, it seems likely we are just seeing the very beginning of naturopathic medicine’s potential impacts on global health.