Alternative medicine is a wide-ranging field that refers to healing practices or treatments designed to bring harmony to the mind, body and spirit. As opposed to "traditional," "conventional" or "Western" medicine, which may focus on treatments that include synthetic drugs and invasive surgeries, alternative medicine focuses on natural remedies and disease prevention. Alternative medicine may also be referred to as the following:
- Integrative medicine
- Integrative health care
- Naturopathic medicine
- Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)
- Holistic medicine
- Chinese medicine
Alternative medicine includes a variety of practices such as acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, energy and magnetic therapies, and herbal medicines. Alternative medical practitioners may work with patients individually, or they may work in tandem with conventional practitioners. Depending on the career chosen, responsibilities may include some or all of the following:
- Working with patients to identify physical, mental or emotional imbalances
- Performing treatments to rectify those imbalances
- Dispensing, prescribing or administering appropriate herbs, extracts and other natural medicines
- Recommending lifestyle changes that will facilitate the body's natural healing process and promote long-term wellness
- Collaborating with conventional practitioners or other alternative practitioners as part of a comprehensive treatment plan
Some careers in this field, such as chiropractic medicine, require a graduate degree and a state certification. For other careers in this field, the barrier to entry may be lower. However, it is important to remember that as in any health-related career, patients are putting their trust and their health into the practitioner's hands. In order to prevent doing harm, it is important to be as knowledgeable as possible.
Coursework in Online Alternative Medicine Degree Programs
Although coursework varies depending on an individual's eventual career goals and selected university and program, there are a few typical subjects common to online holistic medicine degree programs.
Biology courses, which focus on the study of living organisms, can make up the bulk of alternative medicine course requirements. Various courses focus on the different aspects of the field, including microbiology, biochemistry, anatomy, cell biology and genetics. Depending on the school, some courses may require a hands-on laboratory component.
Nutritional science includes the study of macro- and micronutrients, digestion, absorption, transport and metabolism. Coursework in nutrition covers a human's nutritional requirements at specific stages of development and the application of scientific methods and experimentation to this topic. Topics such as diet planning and how nutrients affect energy, wellness and disease may also be covered.
Exercise science is the study of the physiological, mechanical and psychological mechanisms of movement. Topics such as strength and conditioning, sports psychology, methods of rehabilitation, and sport and exercise may be covered. Since many individuals who seek the services of alternative medicine practitioners may already be experiencing the ill effects of injury, students may also take coursework in kinesiology as well as health behavior change.
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Many practitioners of alternative medicine believe there is a connection between the body and mind, and many diseases with physical manifestations or symptoms have been proven to be caused by, or exacerbated by, stress and emotional trauma. Coursework in psychology taken in the context of an online alternative medicine degree program aims to help future practitioners understand these connections. Students will learn how to teach strategies for addressing these issues to patients, thus reducing or alleviating their physical symptoms and achieving balance.
Ethics, also called moral philosophy, is the systematic exploration of right and wrong behavior. In the context of integrative medicine, issues of applied ethics are likely to be explored. Applied ethics courses may cover such topics as the practitioner-patient relationship as well as controversies in the field of medicine, including euthanasia and the right to die, behavior modification, genetic testing and research involving human subjects. Students will be encouraged to prepare for and accept that a consensus has not been reached in the medical field on many of these topics, and their future colleagues and patients may have differing views.
Many students consider these subjects challenging. Especially if one is pursuing an online alternative medicine degree program, having strong study habits is essential to success. While people may be drawn to these careers because they are passionate about helping others, it is important to remember that people are complex and may come to practitioners with their own opinions and preconceived notions. Having strong people skills and developing one's sense of patience and empathy is important, especially for those interested in pursuing an advanced degree. In addition to coursework, workplace experience is essential, so students should be prepared to seek out internship or similar opportunities while in school.
Interview With an Integrative Medicine Educator
We spoke with Denise Dallmann, who has earned both a doctor of naturopathic medicine and a Master of Science in educational leadership and policy. She currently serves as the associate dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at the regionally accredited National College of Natural Medicine, a nonprofit medical school in Portland, Oregon. Denise is also the director of curriculum & faculty development. She gave us advice on how to strategically pursue a degree in natural medicine or a related field.
What are the skills, interests and personality traits necessary for a student to be successful in a natural medicine program?
"The field of integrative medicine has grown tremendously in the last decade. As research continues to support the effectiveness of integrative therapies such as acupuncture, nutritional therapy, exercise, botanical medicine and mind-body medicine, to name a few, the field will continue to grow and earn credibility in the world of mainstream medicine. As such, entry into integrative health programs has become increasingly competitive.
"In addition to possessing a strong scientific background in areas such as human biology and chemistry, students interested in integrative medicine must also possess (or be willing to learn) interpersonal skills such as intercultural competency, emotional intelligence, self-reflective skills, ethics, teamwork and professional communication. These skills are becoming increasingly important as we are faced with a more diverse and sophisticated patient population.
"Managing patient health care and carrying the responsibility for life and death situations requires a unique combination of humility, confidence and of course, medical skill. Learners who can adapt to the rapidly changing field of health care, are interested in the intersection of technology and medicine, and are willing to engage in lifelong learning while remaining humble will be the most successful practicing integrative medicine."
What is the most rewarding part of a career in natural medicine? Why should students pursue a career in this field?
"The ability to help patients in a way that conventional medicine often can't is truly rewarding. Conventional practitioners are excellent at what they do AND are trained to evaluate patients from a very specific and scientific frame of mind. Integrative practitioners take a more holistic approach to patient care, assessing everything from physical symptoms, patient history and family history to stress levels, diet and mental and emotional wellbeing. Some practitioners, such as those in Chinese medicine, evaluate patients on an energetic level and turn to ancient traditions in optimizing patient care.
"This holistic approach forges stronger relationships between provider and patient. It also stimulates deeper, long-lasting healing.
"Beyond patient care, there are many other exciting directions integrative health care professionals can take such as education, consulting, writing, product development, research and so much more. Opportunities abound!"
What advice would you give to students who are considering earning a degree in natural medicine?
"First, learn as much as you can about the different fields and don't hesitate to ask lots of questions. Second, shadow practitioners and conduct informational interviews of health care providers practicing in the areas you're interested in.
"Here are a couple of tips when looking at integrative health programs:
- Every program and every school has a unique focus. Look for a school that resonates with you personally.
- Schools that have strong career services support will help you make the transition from the classroom to your professional practice. This leap can be daunting and having a strong support system around you can help make the transition much easier and set you up on the path to success.
- Programs that integrate science, evidence-informed practice, traditional medicine and interpersonal skills will give you the best-rounded education.
"Finally, keep an open mind, be willing to forge your own path and be open to lifelong learning."
Career Outlook for Professionals With Online Alternative Medicine Degrees
Clearly, alternative medicine encompasses a wide variety of practice areas and potential careers. Although the industry is gaining traction, the first career in alternative medicine to achieve widespread mainstream acceptance is chiropractic medicine.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of chiropractors is projected to grow 15 percent from 2012 to 2022, which is faster than the average for all occupations. This growth will be driven by an increased demand for health care by an aging baby boomer generation. The BLS reports that, according to 2014 data, chiropractors earn a median annual wage of $66,720. The bottom 10 percent of earners generally earn around $31,440, while the top 10 percent of earners typically make around $143,760 per year. The states with the highest employment in this profession include California, Florida and Illinois, with much of the northeast and Great Lakes region not far behind.
Chiropracters, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/chiropractors.htm#tab-1