Alternative Medicine Practitioner Careers

Explore Your Educational Options

For years conventional medicine had something of a stranglehold on healthcare in the West. Alternative diagnosis and treatment modalities were considered niche, at best. At worst, they were condemned as outright quackery. Even chiropractic, as widely accepted and highly regarded as it is today, was seen as suspect by the controlling medical establishment of the day.

Over time, this attitude towards alternative medicine began to change as people in the West began to investigate more traditional and holistic healing techniques, looking for alternatives to the pharmaceutical driven and often invasive treatments and therapies generally offered by conventional medicine.

Eventually, alternative and traditional medicine would gain popularity with the public at large, and some grudging respect from the medical establishment of the time. Today, alternative medicine makes up a large part of the greater healthcare industry, and a growing number of people are turning to traditional and holistic medical practitioners for the healthcare demands.

What is Alternative Medicine?

Alternative medicine is a broad church that encompasses a variety of different healing techniques and therapeutic modalities to restore and promote the health and well-being of patients. While alternative medicine includes a wide variety of different disciplines, they all share a few common ideals.

First and foremost is the concept of total body health and healing, often referred to as the holistic view of health. Where conventional medicine primarily focuses on attaching the symptoms of a disease, an alternative medical practitioner will look for the underlying causes of a disorder so that the body’s own natural healing capacity can be engaged to restore and improve the patient’s overall health. To achieve this goal an alternative medicine practitioner assess the body, mind and spirit of their patient, taking into account possible environmental and behavioral influences, in order to better diagnose and treat their clients.

Another key factor that sets alternative healthcare workers apart from their conventional counterparts is the focus on nature based remedies and therapies for the treatment and care of patients. Conventional medicine tends to mostly rely on pharmaceutical and surgical intervention to threat a patient’s health concerns. These more extreme and invasive techniques often have unintended consequences, as we have learned over the last few decades. For example, we now know that the liberal prescribing of antibiotics in the West has resulted in the rise of so-called ‘super-bugs’ which are resistant to standard antibiotic treatments. This has invariably led to the use of stronger antibiotics, which only serves to exacerbate the problem of ‘super-bugs’.

Alternative medicine focuses on natural therapies, using the body’s own healing potential in the treatment and prevention of illness.

Again, alternative medicine covers a wide variety of disciplines. Those considering a career in the field have many areas of interest to choose from, including:

  • Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
  • Ayurvedic Medicine
  • Herbalism and Botanical Medicine
  • Clinical Nutrition
  • Homeopathic Medicine

These diverse disciplines provide ample professional opportunities for anyone considering a career in alternative medicine. If you have a desire to care for others, and a respect for the power of nature and the importance of harmonic balance, you may find a successful and rewarding career as an alternative medicine practitioner.

Career Opportunities

The professional outlook for alternative medical practitioners in the United States is fairly robust at the moment, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicting steady gains across all major disciplines. This predicted growth can be ascribed to a variety of factors.

First, alternative and holistic medicine appeals to a growing percentage of the population looking for safe, effective and inexpensive alternatives to conventional healthcare options. As the general public takes a more active interest in their personal health and well-being natural based medicine is becoming an increasing large part of the dynamic.

Another influencing factor in the expansion of alternative medicine is the increased lifespan of people in the West. Americans are living longer than ever before, and a key component of the aging demographic is the baby boomer generation. This is a generation that was already at the forefront of the acceptance and adoption of nature based healing techniques, so it is only natural that as baby boomers move into late middle-age, alternative and naturopathic medicine will be a major part of the ongoing healthcare plans.

The children of baby boomers are also likely to be predisposed to embracing nature based healthcare, and are including alternative medical practitioners as a part of their family’s principal healthcare unit.

The job outlook for alternative health practitioners varies according to specialty. While all fields are predicted to grow steadily over the next decade, some are making faster gains than others. For example, licensed dietitians and nutritionists are expected to realize a 16% growth in employment through to 2024, while certified massage therapists are predicted to experience an even greater 22% gain. For those considering a career in alternative medicine the choice of discipline will play a significant part in defining their overall career trajectory and ultimate earning potential.

Income and Earning Potential

As we have discussed, alternative medicine is a broad umbrella that covers a wide variety of distinct disciplines. Just as your choice of specialty will largely determine your employment options, so will the field you follow directly impact your earning potential. Other variables also come into play, including geographic location, educational background, credentialing, and size and type of practice.

The BLS doesn’t track all alternative healthcare professions, preferring to fold them into the larger category of health diagnosis and treatment practitioners. Currently, the BLS estimates a median income pf $73,400 for experienced practitioners in this field. Again, actual salaries vary depending on specialization, type of practice, and total years of experience working in the field.

Education and Credentialing

The educational journey for alternative medicine practitioners varies according to discipline. Some fields demand intensive undergraduate and post-graduate instruction, while others have less extensive requirements. For example, and acupuncturist must complete a 4-year master’s degree program in order to be licensed to practice in their community, while a specialist in herbal and botanical medicine may be able to earn their certification in little more than a year.

Whatever your ultimate field of study there are some common educational milestones that all alternative healthcare workers must pass. Before entering any training program you will be expected to demonstrate a solid understanding of anatomy, physiology, chemistry and mathematics. These are the building blocks of any medical education, and are required for acceptance into most alternative health training programs.

The licensing and credentialing of alternative healthcare professionals is also subject to a number of important variables. The United States’ government currently recognizes no national standards for the certification of natural or alternative health practitioners. Regulation is left to the individual states and municipal governments. As a result the licensing and certification requirements for practitioners of alternative medicine vary greatly from state to state.

In those states and municipalities that do regulate alternative healthcare workers tend to adopt some commonplace requirements. Applicants for licensing typically must posses a degree or other certification from an accredited college or school of medicine, and must pass a written or practical exam of certification from a recognized national organization. Examples of recognized certifying bodies in the United States include:

Choosing a Career Path

As we have seen alternative medicine consists of a variety of different disciplines, each of which has its own educational requirements and offers its own distinct career trajectory. In order to give you a better idea of what you can expect from these different career paths we’ll take some time to look at a few of the individual areas of study with a closer eye as to what is required to start and advance your career in alternative medicine.

Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

Acupuncture is one of the most respected forms of alternative and complementary medicine in the United States. Acupuncturists are highly trained in the Oriental traditions of qi (pronounced ‘chee’), and take a whole body approach to the treatment of illness and the maintaining of good health.

Using sterile needles to stimulate precise pressure points on the body acupuncturists engage the patient’s qi in an effort to restore harmonic balance, relieve chronic conditions and promote good health and well-being. Many acupuncturists supplement their training with coursework in traditional Oriental medicine, incorporating acupressure, cupping, exercise and herbal preparations in their treatment of patients.

Acupuncturists and Oriental medicine specialists work in a variety of settings including private practice, family clinics and alternative healthcare facilities. As one of the fastest growing areas of alternative medicine in the US, practitioners of acupuncture and Oriental medicine are expected to see large gains in employment opportunities over the next decade. Currently the median income for a licensed acupuncturist in the United States stands at approximately $75,000 per year. Newly licensed acupuncturists can expect to earn between $30,000 and $40,000 per year as they build their practices.

Currently 44 states and the District of Columbia require acupuncturists to be licensed to practice within their boarders. In order to be licensed acupuncturists must successfully complete a master’s degree in acupuncture and Oriental medicine and must pass the American College of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) certification exams.

There are 57 accredited colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in the United States that offer graduate and post-graduate degrees. These include:

  • Oregon College of Oriental Medicine – OCOM offers degree courses in acupuncture and Oriental medicine. Students must complete over 3000 hours of instruction along with 900 hours of clinical interning
  • Emperor’s College of Traditional Chinese Medicine – Emperor’s college is one of the top ranked schools of acupuncture and Oriental medicine in the country. The college’s comprehensive master’s degree programs benefit from the school’s own teaching clinic, giving students much needed hands-on tuition.
  • AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine – Acupuncture and Oriental medicine is only one part of AOMA’s extensive integrative healthcare curriculum. The college also offers accredited coursework in herbal medicine, Asian bodywork therapy, and biomedical science.

Ayurvedic Healthcare

Ayurveda is an ancient Hindu system of medicine that is quickly gaining popularity in the West. It is based on the ancient principal that the mind and the body are inextricably linked. By achieving balance in all bodily systems, primarily through diet, herbal treatment and yogic breathing, it is possible to restore and maintain optimal health. Ayurvedic therapists use massage therapy, color and aroma therapies, yoga, nutrition and herbal preparations to treat a wide range of disorders.

The majority of ayurvedic practitioners are currently in private practice, though some are beginning to branch out into multi-disciplinary clinical settings in order to see a wider range of patients. Ayurveda is fairly new to the United States, and as such employment estimates and income rates are not tracked by the BLS. However, estimates from the National Ayervedic Medical Association (NAMA) places the median income for experienced practitioners at between $70,000 and $100,000 per year.

Ayurveda is still relatively new in the United States, and as such practitioners are not required to hold any specific certification to legally practice. That being said, completion of a degree or certified course in Ayurvedic diagnosis and treatment is advised for anyone contemplating a career in this field. There are a number of schools in the US that specialize in Ayurvedic training, providing extensive instruction in these ancient therapeutic techniques.

  • The Ayurvedic Institute – As the oldest Ayurvedic school in the country, the Ayurvedic Institute offers two extensive training programs recognized by NAMA. Students are trained to assess a patient’s constitution looking for possible imbalances in dosha, agini, ama and dhatu. Students are trained to address these imbalances using diet, massage and yogic principal to restore and balance and health to their patients.
  • New World Ayurveda School – Recognized by NAMA, New World Ayurveda offers courses designed to train effective Ayurvedic health practitioners and spiritual counselors. Coursework includes Ayurvedic pulse diagnosis, lifestyle assessment, diet and nutrition, detoxification and the creation of sustaining herbal formulas. A special tuition in psychology and spiritual counseling concentrates on the development of consciousness and honing energy skills to heal imbalanced chakras.

Herbalism and Botanical Medicine

Plants have been used for thousands of years for the treatment of illnesses. Herbalists and botanical medicine specialists use seeds, flowers, leaves, berries, barks and roots to treat their clients and promote good health. Herbalism has a long history, not only in Oriental and traditional Chinese medicine but in the Western traditions of Native Americans and Celts. Botanical medicine is used to treat a wide variety of complaints ranging from simple migraine to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

While botanical medicine has a long tradition throughout the world, its value is only now being rediscovered in the West. Research into the health benefits of plants and herbs have confirmed their efficacy in the treatment of a wide variety of conditions, and increasingly Americans are turning to herbalists and botanical health specialists for many of the healthcare needs.

Most herbalists work in independent practices or in partnership with another alternative healthcare specialist. Job growth for certified herbalists is not as robust as some other alternative medical fields, but predictions still indicate strong employment options for those moving into the field. Again, BLS does not track income rates for herbalists so it is somewhat difficult to accurately estimate potential salaries. That being said, research from the American Herbalists Guild shows an income range of $20,000 to $120,000 per year.

Herbalists and botanical medical specialists require a fairly extensive education in order to earn certification from an accredited school of alternative or integrative health. Most herbalists practicing in a clinical setting will require, at minimum, an undergraduate degree in Phytotherapy. This is often accompanied by minors in botany, biology and related sciences. Degree and certification programs in botanical medicine are typically offered at schools and colleges of holistic or integrative medicine. The following are prime examples of schools offering training in herbalism and botanical healthcare.

  • Pacific Rim College – Pacific Rim offers degrees and certification in Western Herbal Medicine, as well as holistic nutrition and Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Coursework includes hands-on clinical training, with students required to complete a predetermined number of hours interning in an alternative or integrative clinical setting.
  • Alternative Medicine, Nutrition & Allied Health – AMNAH College – AMNAH college offers extensive courses in Herbal Medicine, Herbaceutics and Phytoceutics, Biomedicine and Nutrition. Students can pursue certification, as well as Master’s and Doctoral degrees, via a combination of online and on campus instruction.

Clinical Nutrition

Clinical nutritionists focus on the role of diet in the promotion and maintenance of optimal health and well-being. They are chiefly concerned with the way in which nutrients in food are processed, stored and discarded by the body. Working closely with their patients they assess immediate and ongoing nutritional needs, making alterations in their patients diets to improve health and promote self healing.

Clinical nutritionists work in a variety of settings including hospitals, primary care centers, weight management centers and alternative health clinics. Many licensed nutritionists also choose to go into private practice, seeing patients on a one to one basis.

Clinical nutrition is a fast growing segment of the American healthcare system, and the BLS predicts a 21$ rise in job growth licensed nutritionists over the next ten years. According to Sokanu (the online career and wage tracking firm) the current median income for a licensed clinical nutritionist is approximately $56,000 per year with top earners pushing salaries beyond $76,000 per year.

Most states and municipalities require clinical nutritionists to be licensed to practice within their boundaries. Licensing requires the successful completion of undergraduate and graduate programs at an accredited college or university and a certificate of competency from the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB). Licensing requires, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, dietetics or biochemistry with background coursework in anatomy, physiology and disease prevention. Post-Graduate studies in pediatric nutrition and geriatric nutrition are also available for those who wish to specialize in the care of children and the elderly.

The following schools offer degree programs necessary for the certification and licensing of clinical nutritionists:

  • University of North Dakota – UND offers 4 year bachelor’s degrees in nutrition and dietetics. Coursework includes supervised practical experience, and students are trained to work individually or collaboratively with other healthcare professionals to assess their patients’ nutritional needs, identifying any underlying health problems and developing actionable nutritional interventions designed to improve and foster good health.
  • Oregon Health & Science University – OHSU offers graduate and post-graduate programs in clinical nutrition and dietetics. Programs include Master’s of Dietetic Nutrition, Master’s of Science in Human Nutrition and Master’s of Science in Clinical Nutrition. Coursework included mandatory internship supervised by licensed healthcare professionals.
  • Life University – Life University offers a variety of alternative medicine programs including a Master’s of Science in Clinical Nutrition. These are post-graduate courses, and applicants will be expected to hold a B.S. degree (or its equivalent) in order to be admitted to the programs.

Homeopathic Medicine

Homeopathy is a school of medicine based on the ‘Law of Similars’, and the concept that ‘like cures like’. Homeopathic practitioners treat patients by administering highly diluted remedies to fight illnesses and their symptoms. These remedies are comprised of diluted substances which, if given in larger doses to a healthy individual, would produce similar symptoms as those suffered by the homeopath’s patient. These diluted substances are used to combat the fundamental cause of the patient’s illness, and in so doing return them to optimal health.

In the majority of cases homeopathic doctors are most likely to be either conventional medical doctors or naturopathic medical doctors with a background in homeopathic medicine. These doctors are licensed in their primary field while relying on homeopathic principals to augment the the successful treatment of their patients. The reason for this duality is that homeopathic doctors are not yet licensed to practice as primary care physicians, so in order to be licensed to practice as a physician most homeopaths choose to pursue a degree in a recognized complementary discipline.

Homeopaths who wish to practice independent of the greater medical community may opt to work as counselors, advising clients on how to maintain and promote good health and positive well-being. Homeopathic counselors are restricted to prescribing over-the-counter remedies, and may not claim to act as a licensed medical practitioner.

Homeopathy is gaining great popularity in the United States, and more and more people are turning to homeopathic doctors and counselors to help them improve their health and avoid illness. While the public is broadly embracing homeopathy, the BLS does not yet track employment growth or income statistics. Salaries for homeopathic counselors will naturally vary according to location and type of practice.

Homeopathic doctors fall under the larger umbrella of naturopathic medical doctors and primary care physicians, with an estimated median income of approximately $74,000 per year. Homeopathic counselors tend to work in private practice or partnered with a licensed or certified alternative medicine practitioner. Homeopathic/Naturopathic doctors typically work in private practice or in multi-disciplinary clinical settings.

Becoming a homeopathic doctor or counselor requires extensive education. Emphasis is placed on anatomy, biology, biochemistry and toxicology. Extensive training is also necessary in herbal and botanical medicine. Naturopathic schools of medicine typically provide advanced supplementary coursework in homeopathic modalities. There are also a number of key schools in the United States who are solely dedicated to the education of homeopathic doctors and counselors.

  • The Blue Hill Center for Homeopathy – Founded by Douglas Falkner M.D., Mhom, the Blue Hill Center for Homeopathy offers an intensive 3 year program in homeopathic medicine. The program consists of one year of foundational coursework followed by two years of clinical training.
  • The Homeopathic Academy of Southern California – The HASC offers a three your course in homeopathic medicine. The curriculum includes coursework in anatomy, physiology and pathology. Programs consist of one year of introductory and foundational studies followed by two years of clinician training and clinical experience.
  • The New England School of Homeopathy – Founded in 1990 NESH offers introductory coursework in basic homeopathic principals of diagnosis and treatment. The school’s curriculum is limited, offering basic certification for homeopathic counselors and personal lifestyle consultants.

Your Career as an Alternative Medicine Practitioner

As an alternative medicine practitioner you will rely on your understanding of the interconnectedness of the body, mind and spirit to diagnose and treat clients. This fundamentally holistic view of the human condition will be your guiding principal, whether you train as an acupuncturist, herbalist or homeopath. Your career is likely to bring you into contact with the widest possible range of patients looking to improve their health and realize a new level of personal well-being.

Whether you practice as a purely alternative health caregiver or in collaboration with conventional healthcare professionals offering complementary care for their patients, your advice and counsel will guide your clients to a better life. It is a noble calling, and though the path to your career may be long the journey offers more than simply financial and professional rewards. As an alternative health practitioner you will be transforming lives and leading your patients to healthier and happier futures.