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Top 6 reasons why higher education is important for alternative medicine careers

practitioner working on patient knee

November 18, 2021

kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

When you think of alternative medicine education, you might imagine international retreats taught by self-taught “gurus.” Fair enough, many of these self-proclaimed masters are experts at their trade and lots of people choose to break into the field by following their instruction. This especially makes sense for careers that don’t have as much—or any—regulatory oversight which lays out certain formal education requirements to practice.

But just because you are interested in a complementary and alternative medicine career doesn’t mean you can’t greatly benefit from higher education. In fact, getting a degree could put you one step ahead of your competition and set you up for even greater success.

“When someone has a degree in something there’s a little bit more authority backing what they say,” said Anya Hanson, a class of 2021 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in herbal sciences from Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington.

No matter what natural health profession you want to pursue, make sure you consider these six reasons why higher education is important for your career.

A degree may be needed to break into your chosen alternative medicine field.

women in chiropractic class conferring with teacher

Some careers simply require a certain postsecondary degree in order to practice. If you wish to pursue those professions, you’ll need to start researching how much education you’ll need. Acupuncturists, for example, need at least a master’s degree to get licensed. Make sure you research what any licensing requirements are (if any) for your profession in your state to determine the minimum level of education needed to practice.

Higher education can make you stand out as a reputable practitioner.

practitioner checking reflexes on patient foot

Many alternative medicine careers don’t require a formal postsecondary education. The field itself naturally lends itself to being educated by self-proclaimed or self-taught professionals. The reality is, however, that if you want to work for or alongside more traditional medical institutions, they probably prefer to see evidence of a formal education instead of just a certificate of completion from an informal program. In addition, clients may prefer to see people who have a more robust education.

For Hanson, she said that one of the reasons she values her degree is because it taught her why and how herbal remedies work on a scientific level, not just that they do.

“I think the degree kind of helps us bridge the gap between Western medicine and more traditional folk herbalism. We can operate with a foot in both worlds because we can speak the language of Western medicine—we can talk the chemistry, the pharmacology of the herbs,” Hanson said. “The degree can help refine your medicine-making process and lend that level of credibility that Western medicine and their empirical standards demand.”

Since there is no federal licensing regulation for herbalists, you can graduate from an herbalism school and call yourself an herbalist. However, getting a formal degree in herbal medicine from an accredited college or university could drastically increase your credibility. This may make it easier to receive referrals from other health professionals such as naturopathic doctors or nutritionists

It can expand your scope of practice.

herbal medicine bottle

Getting a degree in complementary and/or alternative medicine gives you the chance to learn new skills that you can incorporate into your practice, be it from your area of study or the elective classes you take along the way. New skills may allow you to offer additional services to clients, which can expand your clientele and make you a more holistic professional.

“The ability to reproduce medicines and have those medicines be a little bit more standardized is also super important and can set you apart as an herbalist,” Hanson said. “The ability to say ‘I know exactly the weight-to-volume of this herbal remedy, I know the dosage, I can reproduce it from season to season because I know the concentration of my medicine’—that’s really important.”

But your degree may not even have to be obviously related to what you do. Health science degrees, for example, provide a well-rounded science education related to human health—there’s hardly an alternative medicine career that wouldn’t benefit from that periphery knowledge. Possible clients and other health professionals alike may see this as a unique asset and be more willing to pursue your services. A massage therapist with a degree in health sciences probably knows more about anatomy and physiology than they would otherwise, which could improve their practice for the better.

It could lead to a higher salary.

woman practicing reiki with teacher observing

Clients or patients are likely to gravitate towards practitioners that are more reputable and have accrued a lot of positive testimony over time. It’s not surprising, therefore, that more clients can lead to more income as a result of the reputation earned by a degree. In addition, if you can offer a greater breadth of services to your patients or clients, you have more opportunities to make more money.

You help people feel good.

relaxed woman having massage

If you’re interested in an alternative medicine degree, it’s probably because you were drawn to a career of healing and helping others. Whether you want to be an occupational therapist, nutritionist, massage therapist, herbalist or any other complementary and/or alternative medicine practitioner, you’ll help people improve their health and wellness and feel the best they can. A degree could be the next step to a lifelong and rewarding career as a natural health professional. 

You’ll join a thriving job market.

woman receiving acupuncture on back

Whether you are getting a degree to start your natural health career or you’ve practiced for years and want to expand your skills, you’re making an investment in a field that is expected to grow for years to come. The global complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) market was valued at $102 billion in 2021. That number is expected to reach $437.9 billion by 2031. There are numerous reasons why the CAM market is projected to grow so high and so rapidly, like an aging population and high costs plus negative side effects of traditional medicine.

Getting a degree in complementary and/or alternative medicines could lead to increased job stability as the CAM market continues to grow over the next decade.


With professional insights from:
Anya Hanson, class of 2021
Bastyr University