Vitality NW is a natural medicine clinic in Tigard, Oregon, that specializes in women’s health and pediatrics. Alicia Hart is the physician who founded the clinic, and an avid supporter of animals as well as women. We chatted with her to learn more about the clinic and to get a sense for how they fit into the healthy beauty and wellness realm.
Alicia, wow. Your expertise in health & wellness is incredibly fascinating. What inspired you to follow this professional path? And when did you know you wanted to open Vitality NW?
Honestly I was pretty sure I was going to be a veterinarian. I started working in vet clinics on and off from early teens, and had gotten so far as to actually live on site at the NW Trek Wildlife park where I was part of the zoo care team. They asked me to euthanize a rabid squirrel, which is a task interns really can’t screw up, but I couldn’t kill the critter so I went outside and vomited. When I checked in with my academic advisor and told him I couldn’t be a veterinarian because of that experience he told me “of course not. You should quit that animal shit and be a people doctor”—which I laughed at during that quarter, but here I am now.
I have a complicated health history myself and didn’t see myself as an MD, though Oregon Health and Sciences University was on my school consideration lists. I looked into being a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, but that didn’t resonate either. When I found out that naturopathy was an option for being a primary care physician here in Oregon, I was incredibly excited—this was the medicine my whole family needed. When I started seeing a naturopath myself, within six months my life-long debilitating pain was gone—and I actually grew two inches taller in my early 20s. Turns out that when you [have celiac disease] but don’t present normally, diet sure matters a lot!
Because I was such a traditional pre-med, I have maintained my relationships with friends who went on to become MDs and DOs, which also gives me a bit more of an integrative feel for this path, and I’d always had a vision for creating a change in the way that healthcare is delivered and received. When I came across a job posting looking for an Naturopathic Docter to lead a start-up in 2015, I knew I’d found a good fit where I could bring my vision for truly holistic healthcare to people who needed my skillset.
When you think about the vision for Vitality NW, what gets you excited?
I want radical change for the way healthcare happens in this country. There’s no reason that healthcare can’t be individualized, specific, using the algorithms that science has developed but mindful of individual circumstance, accessible for patients but not killing doctors. We’re three years into proof of concept and not only has this clinic proven that our model of care works, we’re starting to write the studies that prove it works and more importantly—we serve a lot of healthcare providers themselves who can see that it works. Grassroots change is the best way for us as Americans to force the issue that we all need healthcare as a human right, and that naturopathy dramatically reduces complications of long term conditions, saving everyone money.
I hope that as we continue working with other providers, writing studies to turn our method into evidence base, and spend time talking with our community about local and national health issues they can vote on, we’ll be able to help our community and every community be in better health.
What do you believe are the biggest issues in women’s health and how do we overcome them?
Sexism and economic suppression. Medication studies tend to focus on recruiting men so they don’t have to deal with effects on menstruation or pregnancy. Studies in general tend to focus on men’s issues. Only in the last handful of years have we seen any acknowledgement that some of these issues effect women—and here’s a good example. We know that high blood pressure in pregnancy and postpartum predispose folks to heart disease later on, but there is no campaign to teach women how to take their blood pressure. There’s no doctor’s visits scheduled for women in the first six weeks after birth for most, so no professional to take the blood pressure. And, there’s no good trials of blood pressure medication during lactation.
Compare that to the research and guidelines around high blood pressure and erectile dysfunction and you’ll see that there’s a huge difference in the volume of guiding material. The kicker though? Women are statistically more likely to be pregnant than men are to get erectile dysfunction, so why is all the research on the problem that effects less people? Why is the research on endometriosis, lactation problems and PCOS so poor?
As we continue to push for equal wages, adequate healthcare coverage, planned parenting, adequate maternity leave, and a better social network of things like domestic violence shelters, sustainable housing solutions and universal preschool, I think women will correct a lot of these deficits in science. We’re already seeing some of that as more women join research teams—and as long as men stop talking over them and listen and we proceed in an intersectional way, we’ll get progressive change. Yes, I am a raging liberal. I think considering the evidence and doing some fact checking tends to back that stance up, though.
In addition to the naturopathic services that you offer, how do you decide which wellness products to stock?
I have a few guidelines that we follow for stocking products. I want the companies in Vitality to represent our greater mission, and to do that they need:
- to pay their workers well
- progressive leave policies
- to care about how the earth is used, and to maintain organic and sustainably wildcrafted herbs/nutrients wherever possible.
- to have low waste/low packaging wherever possible
- to have women in upper management or preferably ownership
- to provide third-party certificates of authenticity that prove the products contain what they say they will contain and that they don’t have heavy metal contamination either.
Recently we dropped seroyal/genestra/etc because their parent company was bought by Nestle, a company that actively tries to reduce breastfeeding rates and thinks that water isn’t a human right. We also just added Mountain Mel’s, a local, mother-owned business that handcrafts lovely herbal salves and teas in a very sustainable way. When at all possible, I look for things within the Mommy Owned Business network (theMOBnation.com) to support sustainable, authentic mother owned businesses, then I look local, then I move out from there.
What important shifts have you seen in the health and wellness movement over the last few years?
I’ve seen a lot of conventional medicine starting to recommend things that I’ve been doing for years, which is great as more people will start to get better. Integrative teams and care homes that focus on that doctor patient relationship (over time and as a thing that requires time) will hopefully become more common.
There’s also a big trend toward CO2 extraction of botanicals, which does help with some more convenient dosing mechanisms for some herbals. Unfortunately I’ve also seen a trend toward reductionism—this constituent of that plant for this disease—which is exactly what’s wrong with conventional medicine. Just like nature, we’re too complicated for that and we should consider the unique beauty of the patterns in front of us and that we all need more than a single constituent to be well (taking valerian root without sleep hygiene and adequate nutrition and a safe place to sleep will never solve insomnia!).
What trends or practices do you believe we’ll be seeing more of?
I’m betting on a couple of things—genetic testing is going to be 100 percent routine before treatment starts in the next 20 years. We’re already doing it for things like psych meds and multiple medication sensitivities, it makes sense that we’ll start trying to do it sooner without making people fail medication as it saves money in the long run.
Also, herbal medicine is starting to go mainstream again. While I have a hate/love relationship with essential oil multilevel marketing schemes, they’ve definitely brought some kitchen herbalism and autonomy back to the general arena.
I’ll hold out a big gigantic wish that we get universal healthcare like the rest of the western world too.
We’d love to know Alicia, what does living a life of wellness mean to you?
Wellness is living in the laws of nature, which is harder to do than it seems. Consume what’s sustainable and optimal. Help others as much as you can. Sleep when you’re tired. See your friends and do things you enjoy. Find the thing you love and chase that dream. I think I struggle the most with the eating, sleeping, exercising, and not being a workaholic parts, personally.
And of course, we can’t help but ask – what’s next for Vitality NW? What are your future plans and dreams for the clinic?
Vitality is growing! We added a doctor last year and we’re going to add another doctor before this year is out. We have acupuncture and massage on site now, and with everyone here we’ll be a bit bursting at the seams. Currently in process we’re remodeling an office into an exam room, but once all of that’s full, we’ll have to answer whether we’ll develop a bigger space or start a second location.
In the future, we do hope to franchise out and become a nationwide source for individualized, holistic family care. We also have some nice pie in the sky dreams about reforming some postpartum research particularly around mood disorders, starting a residency site for naturopathic doctors at some point along with a fellowship for conventional degreed folk in integrative medicine, and paying off our student loans.