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Over the last several decades there has been a slow shift in the American attitude to health and healthcare. People are beginning to look beyond the accepted treatments and therapies embodied by conventional Western medicine and are starting to embrace alternative diagnosis and treatment modalities to address their healthcare needs. Once seen as niche these alternatives to conventional medicine are slowly becoming part of the mainstream, and for an increasingly large number of Americans they have become an integral part of their personal healthcare system.
Holistic medicine is one of the fastest growing segments of the American alternative healthcare industry, appealing to those who believe that the promotion of good health is better served by the prevention of illness through the harmony of body, mind and environment than through the often invasive and pharmaceutical driven treatments of conventional medicine.
As interest in holistic medicine grows the burgeoning industry offers ample career opportunities for those dedicated and caring individuals who are naturally drawn to the healing profession.
Holistic Medicine and Whole Body Health
Holistic medicine takes a whole body approach to healing. Unlike conventional medicine, which focuses primarily on treating the symptoms of disease, holistic health practitioners address the whole person when diagnosing and treating their patients. Holistic nurses and doctors look to the fundamental interaction of body, mind and spirit, along with possible environmental and behavioral elements, when assessing a patient’s health. The goal is to discover the underlying causes of any apparent disorder, and in so doing devise treatments and therapies that will not only relieve the obvious symptoms of disease but will actively restore and promote the patient’s optimal health.
Holistic health practitioners are governed by the following basic principles:
- Illness is not an isolated event, but a manifestation of dysfunction of the whole of the patient;
- Understanding the underlying causes of a disorder is more productive than simply treating the symptoms of the disease;
- It is as important to understand the patient as it is to understand the patient’s disorder;
- Patients are active participants in their care, and are the primary engines of the healing process;
- Prevention is always preferable to cure, and the ultimate goal of holistic medicine is always to engage the patient’s own innate healing capabilities;
- Optimal health is more than merely the absence of illness, but is the active pursuit of establishing and maintaining harmony within all aspects of the patient’s life including the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, environmental and behavioral.
Holistic medicine relies on a combination of conventional and alternative therapies to treat and prevent disease. While nature based treatments are almost always preferable, a holistic health practitioner may also utilize complementary or integrative treatment modalities in the care of their patients. It is not uncommon for a holistic healthcare specialist to use conventional medicinal or surgical interventions to address a patient’s immediate complaints, and then augmenting that treatment with therapies grounded in naturopathic or integrative principles and one-on-one instruction of the patient in lifestyle changes that will promote their overall health and well-being.
Who are Holistic Health Practitioners?
Holistic medicine encompasses a wide variety of disciplines, all of which share a whole body approach to health and healthcare. While holistic medicine is often considered part of the alternative healthcare movement, it actually casts a wider net. It is a broad field that runs the gamut from massage therapists and dietitians to osteopaths and naturopathic nurses and doctors. Conventional medical doctors and primary care physicians can also fall under the broader umbrella of holistic healthcare if they guide their practice according to the core principles of whole body diagnosis and treatment of their patients. At its heart, holistic medicine is as much philosophy as medical discipline and many healthcare professions can fall under the broad umbrella of holistic healthcare.
The following professions fall into the general category of holistic health practitioners, and are prime examples of career paths available to those interested in pursuing a career in holistic or nature based healthcare. While each of these occupations is defined by its own distinct treatment modalities, all are guided by the basic tenets of holistic medicine and endeavors to restore and promote good health in patients through the engagement and empowerment of the body’s own innate healing processes.
- Holistic Kinesiology
- Osteopathic Medicine
- Massage Therapy and Bodywork
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) 38% of Americans currently include one or more forms of alternative or complementary medicine in their overall healthcare strategies. The general public is becoming more aware, and more accepting, of alternative modes of treatment and moving forward holistic medicine is expected to play a large part in the expansion of the American healthcare industry.
The job outlook for holistic health practitioners is expected to be strong across the board, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicting strong gains in employment for the majority of holistic healthcare professions. Massage therapists are expected to see the largest growth in job opportunities with the BLS projecting a 23% increase in employment rates. Chiropractors, Osteopaths and Naturopaths will also see improved job growth over the next decade with projected increases of 14% to 19%. Nutritionists and dietitians are also expected to experience substantial gains, ranging from 14% to 16%. As with any professional field as diverse as holistic medicine, job growth is greatly dependent on geographical location, with urban areas of the country expected to see faster and greater gains than more rural communities.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not necessarily differentiate between holistic and more mainstream healthcare professions when assessing income trajectories. However, some professions which would generally be considered part of the larger holistic health movement, such as massage therapist and dietitian, are tracked independently. For example, the most current calculations from the BLS concerning massage therapists with a minimum of 2 years experience in the field indicates a median annual income of $38,040. Nutritionists and dietitians fare somewhat better, with estimated median incomes of roughly $57,000 per year.
When it comes to holistic and naturopathic doctors nurses, it can be a bit more difficult to accurately predict income as data on these professions is folded into the larger categories of physicians and surgeons. Still, the available data is a fair indicator of what licensed holistic doctors and nurses should be earning on an annual basis. According to the latest data from the BLS, the average annual income for physicians and surgeons (including holistically trained MDs) is approximately $190,000. Similar income estimates from the American Holistic Health Association (AHHM) fall in line with these averages, thought the association calculates the median annual income for holistic medical doctors at closer to $176,000.
Ultimately, earning potential for holistic health practitioners will be defined by a number of variables. Choice of healthcare specialty, level of experience and professional credentialing all play a large part in determining actual income trajectories. Geographical location also plays a key role, with holistic healthcare workers in metropolitan areas earning more than their rural or small town counterparts.
Education and Training
The first step on the path to a professional career as a holistic health practitioner is to decide on a field of study. Most holistic healthcare workers are drawn to a specific type of alternative or naturopathic medicine, and that natural interest should be your guide in determining what career best suits your ambition. Once you have chosen a field of interest you will be better able to plan your education accordingly, taking steps to complete your training and become fully credentialed in your choice of profession.
Holistic healthcare covers a wide range of professions, and some disciplines require a greater educational investment than others. For example, if your ambition is to become a holistic medical doctor your education and training will mirror that of a conventional MD. You will need to successfully complete four years of undergraduate studies, another four years of medical school and one to two years of a residency. On the other hand, if you want to become a massage therapist it may only take 2 years of study to complete your training programs and be certified to practice in your community.
Whatever your ultimate field of study, you should expect to move forward in your post-secondary education and training with a strong background in anatomy, physiology, chemistry and mathematics. Communication skills and administrative training will also serve you will as you continue your education and prepare for starting your active career. Regardless of your ultimate choice of career path, your performance in these areas may well determine whether or not you are accepted into the college of vocational school of your choice.
The licensing and credentialing of holistic health practitioners varies according to profession. Holistic MDs are governed by the same licensing conventions as standard MDs, and are required to pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) in order to legally practice medicine in the United States. Chiropractors are also required to pass board exams, as administered by the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners (NBCE), in order to be licensed to practice in the United States and its recognized territories.
Once we move away from medical doctors the standards for licensing and credentialing become more fluid, and regulation is typically left to individual states and municipalities. For example, most states require massage therapists and nutritionists to be licensed before they can practice within state boundaries. In order to obtain that license applicants must have a degree or other certification from an accredited school, and in many cases must also pass a written or practical exam proving competency in their field.
Some holistic healing disciplines are subject to relatively few Federal regulations. Hypnotherapists, for example, currently require little more than a business license to practice in the majority of states across the country as long as they are not working in a clinical or medical capacity. That being said, the regulation of healthcare workers of all disciplines is constantly in flux, and it is important to fully research the local, state, and Federal regulations associated with your chosen field of study and professional career ambitions.
Choosing Your Career Path
As we have seen holistic healthcare covers a wide range of disciplines, each of which has its own educational and credentialing requirements. It will be beneficial at this point to take a closer look at a few of the more popular career choices that fall into the general category of holistic health. These short overviews should provide a better idea of what is required to start and advance your career as a holistic health practitioner.
Kinesiology is the study of body movement and the gentle manipulation of muscles and muscle groups to restore and promote good health. First introduced in the 1980s by John Thie kinesiology shares many of the same diagnostic and treatment principles as chiropractic and acupressure. Holistic kinesiologists work with the mind and the body, focusing on the patient’s muscles, ligaments, posture and body structure, to treat a variety of chronic health complaints including migraines, insomnia, depression and anxiety.
Kinesiologists work in variety of settings including private practice and multi-disciplinary clinics. While kinesiology is a relatively new field of holistic healthcare, it has been gaining ground throughout the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 6% increase in job growth for licensed kinesiologists over the next decade. Income is heavily dependent on type of practice and level of experience. As of 2015 PayScale estimates the median income for a licensed kinesiologist with 4 years experience at approximately $44,000 per year.
In most states kinesiologists are required to have, at minimum, a bachelor’s of science degree in applied kinesiology from an accredited college or university to be licensed to practice. Some states place greater restrictions on licensing, requiring applicants to hold a Master’s or PhD in kinesiology before they can be fully licensed to practice within the boundaries of the state. The American Kinesiology Association (AKA) provides useful data on accredited schools offering both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in kinesiology. These include:
- Adelphi University – New York’s Adelphi University is private college offering both Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs in exercise science with dedicated coursework in applied and rehabilitative kinesiology.
- Northern Arizona University – Offering a four year Bachelor’s degree program in exercise science and kinesiology NAU is at the forefront of colleges offering coursework in applied and holistic kinesiology.
- Pepperdine University – Located in Southern California, Pepperdine University offers accredited four year degrees in exercise science and kinesiology.
The understanding of the interaction between mind, body and experience is fundamental to the practice of hypnotherapy. Working closely with their patients hypnotherapists induce an altered state of awareness, perception or consciousness that allows for the efficacious treatment of both psychological and physiological disorders. Hypnotherapists primarily work in private practice addressing a wide variety of physical and mental health conditions. Experienced hypnotherapists may occasionally be called upon to partner with conventional medical doctors to provide complementary therapeutic treatments for their patients.
The public’s interest in hypnotherapy has grown over the last few decades, mirroring the general trend towards the adoption of holistic and alternative healing modalities. The employment outlook for hypnotherapists is particularly strong, particularly in more metropolitan areas of the country. Earning potential varies according to experience and type of practice. Sokanu, a leading market research firm, estimates a median annual income of $55,350 for hypnotherapists working in the United States.
Hypnotherapy is not regulated by the Federal government, however several states and municipalities do require hypnotherapists to be licensed, or at the very least registered with the state, to practice within their boarders. A distinction should be drawn here between hypnotherapists and clinical hypnotherapists. To be certified as a clinical hypnotherapist you must have a graduate degree in a complementary medical or mental health field and must successfully complete at least 60 hours of coursework in hypnotherapy. Certification is acquired through the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists (NBCCH).
There are several respected schools of hypnotherapy in the continental United States. The most prominent include:
- The Hypnosis Practitioner Training Institute – Located in California, HPTI is an affiliate school of the American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists. HPTI offers both introductory and continuing education coursework in hypnotherapy.
- Hypnosis Motivation Institute – HMI is one of the few accredited colleges of hypnotherapy in the United States, offering comprehensive instruction designed for students pursuing careers in clinical hypnotherapy. Applicants to the college must have a graduate degree a related medical or mental health field to qualify for admission to the college’s clinical hypnotherapy program.
- Denver School of Hypnotherapy – One of the fastest growing schools dedicated to the study of hypnotherapy, the Denver School of Hypnotherapy offers rigorous courses consisting of 500 hours of intensive training in all aspects of hypnotherapy.
Osteopathic doctors are primary care physicians that focus on the holistic treatment of illness and disease. An emphasis is placed on the prevention of illness and the maintenance of optimal health through diet, exercise and behavioral modification. Osteopaths are medical doctors, and the complete the same rigorous education as conventional MDs. However, their education is augmented with supplementary training in holistic diagnosis and treatment modalities which they bring to bear in the treatment of patients.
There is currently a major demand for physicians and surgeons, including doctors of osteopathic medicine, in the United States. The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a substantial 14% increase in job growth for doctors of all types over the next 10 years. As Americans increasingly turn to holistic and alternative health options for their personal care osteopathic doctors will see very real benefits from that projected growth. The BLS currently estimates the median annual income for doctors in the US at approximately $187,000. PayScale’s estimates are slightly lower for Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, coming in at roughly $147,000 per year.
Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine follow the same education trajectory as conventional medical doctors. A Bachelor’s degree is required for entry into medical school. Osteopathic medical programs typically take four years to complete, followed by 3 to 6 years of a residency. Osteopathic doctors are required to pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam in order to be licensed to practice in the United States.
According to the American Osteopathic Association there are currently 33 accredited colleges of osteopathic medicine in the United States, including:
- A.T. Still University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona – ATSU’s Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine programs feature some of the most innovated teaching modules in the country. The four year program incorporates hands-on tuition at regional clinics associated with the college.
- Ohio University School of Osteopathic Medicine – Ohio University offers comprehensive pre-med, undergraduate and graduate programs in osteopathic medicine. Classic instruction is complemented by hands-on on clinical experience.
- Nova Southeastern University School of Osteopathic Medicine – Located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida Nova Southeastern University offers undergraduate and graduate level programs in osteopathic medicine. Students can take advantage of additional coursework designed to fast track them to certification in all aspects of osteopathic care.
Massage Therapy and Bodywork
Massage therapy has been a cornerstone of holistic healing in the West since the 1940s, and it currently stands as the third most commonly used form of alternative or holistic healthcare services in the United States. Using manipulation of the soft-tissue muscles of the body massage therapists work with clients to relieve chronic pain, reduce stress and anxiety and rehabilitate injuries. Massage therapy is driven by a whole body approach to well-being, using relaxation techniques and massage to promote inner peace and self healing.
Massage therapists work in a variety of professional settings including physician’s offices, fitness and rehabilitation centers, and multi-disciplinary clinics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics records faster than average job growth rates for massage therapists, projecting 22% gains through to 2014. While income is largely dependent upon geographic location and level of professional experience the BLS currently estimates the median annual income for massage therapists in the United States at approximately $38,000.
Massage therapists do not necessarily need a degree to be licensed to practice in the United States, however they do need to complete a post-secondary certificate or diploma program from an accredited school of massage. The duration of these programs varies but generally involves 500 to 1000 hours of academic study and hands-on clinical training. Coursework includes sections on anatomy, physiology, pathology and professional ethics. Upon completion of an accredited program students are required to take and pass either the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Exam or the Board Certification Exam in Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork.
Most states and municipalities require certified massage therapists to be fully licensed. Requirements for licensing are set by state and local governments, so recent graduates will want to check with their local regulatory boards for complete details on licensing procedures.
There are more than 300 accredited massage therapy schools in the United States. Cost and duration of programs at these schools will vary according to location, style of massage therapy and bodywork being studied, and type of certification or diploma granted upon completion of the program. Those wishing to pursue a career in massage therapy would do well to consult the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA) to find schools in their area. Massage therapy schools recognized by COMTA include:
- Central Oregon Community College – Massage Therapy Program – Central Oregon Community College offers a one year Certificate of Completion in Massage Therapy program as well as a two year Associates of Applied Science in Massage Therapy degree. Students receive extensive academic instruction in massage techniques as well as hand-on clinical training supervised by a licensed massage therapist.
- Institute for Therapeutic Massage – Located in New Jersey, the Institute for Therapeutic Massage offers programs in massage therapy and Eastern bodywork. Certificate programs start at 720 hours with optional supplementary instruction in advanced Shiatsu, Myology and Kinesiology.
- Parker University – School of Massage Therapy – Parker University in Dallas, Texas offers an 800 hour basic certification program for massage therapy. The school also offers advanced coursework for those pursuing their Associate of Applied Science degree in massage therapy.
Your Career as a Holistic Health Practitioner
Holistic health practitioners must be able to see and understand the interconnectedness of the body, mind and spirit as they diagnose and treat their clients. Whether acting as a primary care physician or as a massage therapist this fundamental concept drives all diagnostic modalities and treatment techniques. By working closely with patients and clients to address the underlying causes of disorders holistic health practitioners help to relieve suffering and promote good health.
All healthcare professions demand a unique insight into the human condition and an uncompromising dedication to health and well-being of others. Becoming a holistic health practitioner is a noble calling, and the rewards can be generous. But it is also a demanding job and you must be prepared to devote yourself to the proactive care of your patients and clients, work tirelessly to bring them out of the darkness of disease and into the light of health and personal well-being.