Working as a herbalist
Susan Chang practises Chinese herbal medicine at the Northern College of Acupuncture in York. She treats illness with plant remedies, following a tradition which is over two thousand years old.
What is Chinese herbal medicine?
Traditional Chinese medicine dates back to a time before the development of modern sciences like chemistry and physiology. It is based on the idea that all of nature is balanced – heat is balanced by cold, for example. Humans should be balanced too, and if something happens which disturbs a person's balance, they become ill.
Who can you help?
Chinese herbal medicine can help people of all ages with a wide range of common medical complaints. These include asthma, allergies, skin conditions, depression, high blood pressure and back pain.
What happens during a consultation?
Traditional Chinese medicine looks at the whole person and not just the symptoms of the illness. I spend a lot of time talking to the patient, finding out about their illness, when and how it started, how it has progressed and how it responded to previous medical treatment. Information about the patient's lifestyle and diet is very helpful too.
Do you carry out a physical examination?
Yes, I check the patient's pulse and look at their tongue. The strength and various qualities of the pulse, and the colour, shape and coating of the tongue can tell me a lot about the patient's health.
How do you decide what treatment to prescribe?
All the information I gather from the patient helps me to understand the cause of their illness and how their balance has been disturbed. I then prescribe a number of herbs to balance the disorder. For example, if the patient suffers from weakness, I would use plants with strengthening properties.
What happens next?
I dispense the remedy. Most of the herbs I use come from the supplier in powder form. I then explain to the patient how to use the remedy – they usually need to mix the powder with water and boil it.
Do you give any other advice?
In some cases it's very important to give the patient advice on lifestyle changes which will improve their health. I often advise patients on how to keep a good life-work balance, relaxation techniques, nutrition, using food supplements and appropriate exercises.
How long does it take?
Consultations last around 45 minutes to an hour. Patients with minor illnesses might see me once or twice, but severe illnesses can take one or two years to treat. On average, I see each patient about ten times. I take notes on everything discussed during each consultation and all the treatments I prescribe.
What do you like most about working as a herbalist?
I really enjoy working with people and helping to make their lives easier and happier. I also teach traditional Chinese medicine to the students at the college where I work, which gives me variety. I enjoy the constant challenge to learn more and keep improving my skills.
Is there anything you dislike?
Some people think of herbal remedies as "witches' brew" rather than medicine. I find this very frustrating. However, Chinese medicine will soon be regulated, just like mainstream western medicine, so hopefully this image will change.
What hours do you work?
I work from 9am until 6pm, Monday to Friday.
What qualities make a good herbalist?
Listening skills and observational skills are essential. It also helps to have an understanding of the philosophical background of traditional Chinese medicine.
Susan's route to working as a herbalist
- Batchelor of Medicine (MB).
- Worked and studied further in China.
- Took up present job in the UK and became a Member of the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (MRCHM).
Susan's working as a herbalist tip
- Find out more about Chinese herbal medicine on the Internet.
Herbalist related jobs
Salary working as a herbalist
- Most herbalists are self-employed, so their income varies.
- A new entrant, building a practice, could earn about £12,000 a year.
- With experience this could increase to £20,000.
- Herbalists with large practices and 10 to 15 years' experience could earn £40,000 a year.
Working as a herbalist
- To qualify for registration with one of the professional associations for herbalists you must take a recognised professional course accredited by either the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) or the European Herbal Practitioners Association's (EHPA) Accreditation Board.
- Degrees and diplomas in herbal medicine are available. Entry requirements vary but for a degree you usually need two or three A levels/four H grades, or equivalent, including biology or human biology.
- The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (www.rchm.co.uk) has a list of institutions offering approved professional courses in Chinese herbal medicine.
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