Guide to College Majors in Alternative Medicine

Orthodox medicine has not found an answer to your complaint. However, luckily for you, I happen to be a quack.
--Richter cartoon

Table of Contents

What Is Alternative Medicine?

The world of alternative medicine is vast, ranging from Chinese medicine to massage therapy. Unlike most Western medical practices, alternative medicine often seeks a deeper cause of illness, instead of simply addressing the symptoms. Alternative medicine practitioners do not prescribe drugs or perform surgery, instead relying on herbal and holistic remedies as well as acupuncture and massage.

The basic foundation of alternative medicine is simple: bring harmony to the body, mind, and spirit in order to promote health. This idea of balance is as old as the healing arts themselves. The practice of balancing the body's natural energies can be found in the healing traditions of the Chinese, Indian, and Native American cultures.

Those practicing alternative medicine have a strong belief in nature and the body's ability to heal itself. Doctors in the field of alternative medicine concentrate on illness prevention as much as they treat specific illnesses. They counsel their patients on what sort of lifestyle changes they need to make in order to decrease the risk of illness.

The biggest difference between Western medicine and alternative medicine is in the way each discipline views the body. While Western doctors and surgeons treat the body as a conglomeration of organs and systems, alternative medicine doctors look at the body, mind and spirit as a whole. Western medicine focuses on the belief that bacteria and viruses cause disease, while alternative medicine doctors focus on the patient's entire internal condition, including state of mind and emotional balance.

The basic tenets of alternative medicine include:

  • A belief in the harmony of mind, body, and spirit to promote good health and wellness and to prevent illness.
  • Treating the symptoms of a disease does not cure the disease. The root of the illness must be addressed in order to create an effective treatment.
  • Imbalances in the body as a whole are the true cause of illness.
  • Each individual patient has different strengths and weaknesses and an individualized plan must be developed for each patient in order for them to achieve optimal health.
  • The doctor is an educator who teaches patients how to lead a healthy lifestyle and take care of themselves, identifying and helping to remove obstacles that must be overcome in order for good health to be achieved.

Alternative medicine is also about empowering the patient to prevent disease, instead of having to rely exclusively on a medical professional. Alternative medicine practitioners believe self-healing to be a natural process of the body. Once the patient begins to identify the environmental, emotional, and physical problems that exist within and without, and how these things relate to one another, s/he can begin to live a life that is conducive to optimal health.

There are many fields of alternative medicine available for study in traditional college or institute settings, as well as in online degree programs. These include:

  • Chinese medicine
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage therapy
  • Herbal medicine
  • Naturopathic medicine
  • Indian Ayurvedic medicine
  • Homeopathic medicine
  • Yoga

Before entering an alternative medicine college degree program, it is important to take a close look at yourself and at the demands of the program to see if this path is the right one for you. There are certain traits you must possess in order to succeed in the field of alternative medicine.

An effective practitioner of alternative medicine has the innate ability to view the body holistically, maintaining an open mind about the possible sources of an illness or condition. This is not a job for the stubborn or inflexible. Being able to treat patients as individuals with unique physical, mental, and spiritual needs instead of as a generic assemblage of organs is necessary when entering the field of alternative medicine.

Alternative medicine practitioners must be able to talk candidly and openly with their patients about very personal information. Therefore, these healers must be extraordinarily sensitive and compassionate in an attempt to make the patient feel as comfortable as possible. Getting a patient to open up and relate personal details like this can also be a long process, so patience also plays a very important role.

As with all medical professions, the field of alternative medicine involves a rigorous and demanding course of study-it's not Med School Lite. The amount of information to be absorbed can be, at times, overwhelming. Before entering a degree program in alternative medicine, students should examine how committed they are to the pursuit of this goal. Only the most committed of students go on to become successful practitioners of alternative medicine.

Online Degrees in Alternative Medicine
If you face obstacles to attending a traditional degree program, then perhaps a distance education program from an accredited online university is right for you. These class schedules are often very flexible and require little to no travel. And, if you are unsure of where you would like to focus your studies, online courses offer different levels of intensity in order to fit your current commitment level. Depending on the degree program, you may need to arrange for local hands-on training as part of your studies.

Career Education in Alternative Medicine

There are plenty of different majors, certificates, and degrees available to those who wish to practice alternative medicine. Each program is unique in its focus and the level of commitment required. While doctoral-track BS and MS programs are as rigorous as traditional medical school, some of the certificate courses can be taken online part-time while you work a full-time job or take care of a family.

Certificate Programs in Alternative Health

More and more of today's busy students are taking certificate courses online, through accredited universities and distance learning centers. These programs allow for maximum flexibility while the student continues his full-time job or takes care of a family. Certificate programs are a good choice for those wishing to begin study or further their knowledge of alternative medicine. While many of these programs are simply introductory courses, many others are designed for already certified acupuncturists or practitioners of Eastern medicine who wish to specialize in a particular area of study.

Examples of common certificate programs include:

  • Massage Therapy
  • Holistic Health
  • Herbal Medicine
  • Oriental Body Therapy
  • Yoga Instruction

Bachelor of Science Degrees in Alternative Medicine

Bachelor's degrees in alternative medicine include courses of study in acupuncture, Chinese medicine, physiology, and various body therapy disciplines. These programs can range from two to four years. Some of the two-year programs require a minimum number of transfer credits covering general education requirements from another college. Other programs offer courses of study resulting in a combined bachelor's and master's degree in complimentary and alternative medicine. Bachelor's degrees in the field of alternative medicine are diverse and numerous. Before making a decision, students should study each discipline's principles and decide which accords best with their own philosophies on health and wellness. Programs exist for Chinese medicine, acupuncture and Oriental medicine, general complimentary and alternative medicine, Ayurvedic physiology and health, herbal science, and so on.

Most bachelor's programs have a strong focus on basic science and rudimentary holistic skills. Many students of alternative medicine who choose not to continue their schooling past this level go on to take entry-level or assisting careers in chiropracty, acupuncture, physical therapy or rehabilitation.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Alternative Medicine?

As more and more people begin to realize its effectiveness and utilize its treatments, alternative medicine is quickly becoming a booming industry. In addition to making a good living, practitioners of alternative medicine enjoy satisfying and rewarding careers that affect people's lives deeply.

Depending on the student's level of education, there are a variety of careers in alternative medicine to choose from. The business-minded graduate might get involved in selling herbal remedies and holistic health supplements, even owning her own business. Those with agriculture backgrounds can cultivate and sell herbs. Private massage therapy practices are sprouting up everywhere, as are spas and gyms that employ massage therapists. Acupuncture clinics and Chinese medicine clinics are gaining more visibility, employing more licensed practitioners than ever before.

Here are some examples of careers in alternative medicine:

  • Massage Therapist: Whether practicing privately or working for a spa, gym, or physical therapy clinic, massage therapists administer soothing, healing treatments on an individual basis. They base their choices of massage techniques on interviews with the client, using him or her to guide their treatments.
  • Acupuncturist: Acupuncture involves the use of needles to stimulate specific points on the body. As a result, patients achieve a balance of the physical, mental, and emotional. They also perform moxibustion and cupping, depending on the needs of the patient. These needs are determined by an interview process, which demands the acupuncturist be sensitive, understanding, and perceptive. More and more American health insurance companies are offering acupuncture coverage as its efficacy is proven.
  • Herbalist: In order to provide an alternative to Western prescription medicine and all of its side effects, herbalists grow, dry, and blend herbs that work in conjunction with one another and with the body to restore balance and harmony to the patient's system. Herbalists can have careers in retail, agriculture, or consulting.

Alternative medicine practitioners will often be engaged in more than one discipline. Since the study of Chinese medicine often involves prescribing many forms of treatment that will work in conjunction with one another, most Chinese medicine doctors are able to perform acupuncture, massage, and herbal prescriptions.

Certification and Licensure

After obtaining a master's degree in alternative medicine, students must typically be licensed by the state in which they reside before they can begin to practice legally. Licensure requirements vary from state to state, and some states do not as of yet offer licensing in alternative medicine. Licensure is also necessary in order to be accepted to a doctoral program in alternative medicine.

Some schools offer licensing as part of the educational process, making it easier for students to transition from an educational environment to a clinical one. When selecting a degree program, ask if they offer licensure before deciding to apply.

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