Dr. Nicha Samantarat, Founder of NICHE Natural Health
Dr. Nichamon (Nicha) Samantarat is one of the first US-licensed naturopathic doctors in Thailand, who founded her own naturopathic medical clinic in Bangkok, Thailand after spending over a decade living and studying in Canada and the US. Read on to hear from Dr. Nicha about NICHE Natural Health, naturopathic medicine, and studying in North America.
What is NICHE Natural Health all about?
NICHE Natural Health is an integrated health and wellness centre, focusing mainly on naturopathic medicine. This means we focus on a natural approach to taking care of peoples’ health and well-being. We have naturopathic doctors, medical doctors, acupuncturists, and nutritionists, so there are many fields of doctors working together to provide the best care at NICHE Natural Health.
What’s the difference between conventional and naturopathic medicine?
Conventional medicine and naturopathic medicine both use the same diagnosis system, which means we do the same physical exam, lab tests, imaging, and diagnosis—the differences are in the treatment. Conventional medicine uses pharmaceutical drugs and surgery as the main form of treatment, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, there's certain types of conditions that mesh best with one style of medicine or the other. With naturopathic medicine, the treatment is more of a natural process. Examples include fundamental lifestyle modification, such as how you sleep, eat, exercise, and manage stress; in essence, everything that directly affects your health every day. We also use supplements and nutraceuticals as treatment. These are things that you already have in your body, like vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants. We focus on treating a patient as a whole, not by the symptoms. Everyone is different and we need to find the root cause of the problem in order to create the plan that promotes sustainable health. We want to find the least invasive treatment that works effectively for the patients. I don't see one treatment approach as being better than the other, they just work differently depending on the situation.
What kind of services are offered at NICHE Natural Health?
Mostly we do naturopathic consultations, which take about 60 minutes the first time. We have to review the patient’s lifestyle and their comprehensive medical history, because it is important to get the whole picture. This allows us to treat the person, not just an individual symptoms. Then from the consultation, we might move to the treatment plan, looking at whether they need a supplement, IV therapy, a lifestyle modification, or maybe they need a referral to the nutritionist. Everything starts from a consultation first, however.
A lot of people that come to our office come with some kind of complicated health problem. They might have been to many hospitals before, but with no solutions found, and it might not be a straightforward condition. On a spectrum from well to ill, people who fall somewhere in between not feeling well but not completely sick are the people who usually come to me.
How did you discover naturopathic medicine?
I went to Winnipeg, Canada for high school in Grade 10; I was going to go for one year for an exchange, see how I liked it, and then return to Thailand, but I ended up continuing to post-secondary at the University of Winnipeg. I majored in biochemistry and pre-medicine studies, and was originally looking into a conventional medicine track, until I had some of my own medical problems arise. I had to go through a lot of treatment in two years, including surgery and hormone therapy, but then we had to stop all the treatment because I started having side effects. I had to learn about other options that might be available for me, which is when I learned about naturopathic medicine. My family has a private hospital in Thailand, so we are very familiar with the healthcare industry, however in Thailand there is only conventional medicine. Even though I had the privilege of gaining access to the country’s best doctors, I still didn't have a solution for my health problem. I felt like if I went through with naturopathic medicine studies, I would be able to help other people with similar problems that could not be solved with conventional medicine. So, I applied for a naturopathic medical school and moved to Seattle to pursue this.
What do you remember most about Canada and the Canadian education system?
I personally enjoyed my experience living in Canada the most compared to being overseas in any other country. Canadians are so friendly and nice, I even had some culture shock moving from Winnipeg to Seattle. Seattle is so close to Canada, yet still so different. In terms of the education system, in Canada many universities are public universities, funded partially by the government. I feel like the quality of the education that was being provided was very superior; there just seemed to be a higher standard in Canada. Also, in Canada you need an education degree to teach, which I think helps strengthen the education system there.
What surprised you most when you moved back to Thailand?
I moved back here about five years ago, and it was definitely another big culture shock. I was away for so long and coming back here I was surprised by the things that drove me crazy, like traffic and the disorganization. At first moving back everything seemed so messy and unorganized, but if you look at it from another perspective it does have a unique charm. Another thing that really surprised me was consumer behavior. Thai patients and foreigner patients are totally different in the way that I have to approach the case or do the treatment plan—it is not just the culture, but also their behaviour.
What would you say to someone moving their business from North America to Thailand?
Even though you might have a solid business model from North America you want to bring to Thailand, you really have to study Thai consumers and their behaviour because it is completely different. For example, if I consult with my patients from the United States about their nutrition, condition, and lifestyle, lifestyle modification would not be too difficult a treatment plan for them. I would give them guidelines and motivation and explain to them what can happen if they do not make any changes. However, here in Thailand, lifestyle modification is something that is really challenging. It is difficult to get patients to change their diet because many do not cook, and so they eat what is available to eat out all the time. I usually have to work with a chef to send the food to the patient. So, things like lifestyle modification that might work back in Canada or the United States are more difficult to implement here.
The way consumers buy things online is interesting as well; in North America people tend to buy with as few clicks as possible, as they don't want to talk to many people or have a long process. In Thailand, people usually like to talk to someone before they make a purchase, because they do not entirely trust online shopping. There’s a lot of detail in customer expectations here, so you need to really fine tune your business model and modify your services to match the consumer behaviour and culture before you come.
Also, if you have a local partner, that helps a lot. When I moved back to Thailand I partnered up with a Thai doctor, and this really helped me to understand patients and the business culture here.
How has COVID affected NICHE Natural Health?
Our customers and patients are 50% Thai and 50% foreigners. In the foreigner demographic, there are some expats and there’s also a large number that come from overseas. I have a lot of expat patients who live elsewhere in Southeast Asia—Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, everywhere around Thailand—and they come to Thailand because we are a medical hub. This group of patients has been very affected by COVID because they're not able to travel to the clinic, and then I have another group that can be classified as medical tourists, who are not able to come visit the clinic either. The pandemic has definitely affected about 35 to 40% of my patients, and while we are able to provide video call consultations sometimes, we're not able to provide most treatments. In terms of supplements, we are not able to send medication or supplements overseas, as it is complicated with immigration and customs regulations, so if a patient is not able to find a quality supplement in their area, that can also be challenging.
What are you most proud of with starting your business?
I'm really proud of what my business is today. Back about five years ago when I moved back here, I knew nothing—I had not lived in Thailand for about 12 years, so I had no idea what was going on in the country. I didn't have classmates and I didn't know any other doctors, which was really challenging for me; I had to start new and fresh. I also did not have any business knowledge, so I'm proud that in the process along the way I learned a lot. I really feel like it has been a real-life MBA for me. I’m also proud that I'm not just able to help my patients one on one, but I have also started to expand my expertise as well. I teach in a university as a guest lecturer, so I'm able to provide more of an impact on more people. I also do business consultations for other wellness businesses, so I feel like I'm really able to help the community.
Author: Samantha Rae Harriss