If you're interested in alternative therapies and would like to help others, a career as an acupuncturist may be for you

An acupuncturist is a complementary health practitioner who takes a holistic approach to the maintenance of health and the management of disease. The focus is on the individual, rather than the illness and the aim is to improve the person's overall wellbeing. The correct manipulation of qi is used to treat a range of emotional and physical disorders, including those of a musculoskeletal, respiratory, circulatory and gynaecological nature.

Acupuncture is an ancient therapy based on the theory that the body depends on vital energy, known as qi, being in balance. If there is pain or illness, acupuncturists see this as a sign that the body is out of balance. To correct this they insert fine needles into acupuncture points, which restore the flow of qi, which then triggers the body's natural healing process.

Responsibilities

As an acupuncturist, you'll need to:

  • carry out an initial consultation with each patient, in order to establish a detailed case history, assess their health and determine a treatment plan
  • conduct subsequent one-to-one treatment sessions with patients, lasting between 45 minutes to an hour
  • explain the diagnosis and treatment to the patient and respond to their questions and concerns
  • treat by inserting fine needles into the skin at particular locations to stimulate the energy flow along meridians (energy channels) and the body's own healing response
  • incorporate other treatments, such as moxibustion (burning herbs to warm insertion points), electro-acupuncture (stimulating insertion points with small electric currents), acupressure (to loosen and relax muscles), and cupping
  • assess patient progress through questioning and examination as well as reviewing treatment plans if necessary
  • keep patient and financial records
  • organise and promote your practice.

Salary

An acupuncturist's earnings are related to the success of the practice and may be low during the first three to four years, as it can take time to get established.

  • On average, acupuncturists treat between one and four clients a day in the early stages, at about £40 a session (£45 to £90 per session in London). More will be charged for the initial consultation session. Once established, an acupuncturist may treat 30 to 40 clients a week and fees can vary depending on the success and location of the practice.

Some acupuncturists offer multi-bed sessions in which more than one client is treated at a time (using partition screens for privacy), making it possible to reduce the treatment cost.

Additional income from other employment may be required to cover living costs and overheads, such as rent of practice premises, until the time that clients' fees cover outgoings.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours typically include frequent unsocial hours, e.g. weekends and evenings, to suit clients. Part-time work and career breaks are possible.

What to expect

  • The cost of overheads and room rental may determine the place of work; you may have a private or shared consulting room. Flexibility and mobility are an advantage when starting out.
  • Practitioners need to be at ease with physical contact and with working in a variety of workplaces (including patients' homes) with a range of clients and colleagues.
  • Self-employment is very common and ultimately offers a choice of working hours and locations.
  • Jobs are widely available in both urban and rural areas. Effective self-promotion is essential in order to compete successfully in areas where there are already a number of established acupuncture practices.
  • A uniform is not required, but many acupuncturists choose to wear white clinical clothing (tunic and trousers).

Qualifications

You can choose from a variety of acupuncture courses, with the length of study varying according to the educational provider. Courses are run at an honours-degree level and many lead to a BSc. Some institutions also offer MSc courses.

Accreditation ensures a certain level of teaching is delivered, across a minimum of 400 hours in a clinical setting, including a basis in Chinese medicine theory along with physiology, anatomy and other western medical sciences. A list of available accredited courses can be found at British Acupuncture Accreditation Board (BAAB) - Accredited courses. Observation and clinical practice will form a substantial part of your training, and practice treatments are carried out under the close supervision of trained and experienced acupuncturists.

Completing an accredited course means you are automatically eligible to join the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC). This enables you to join the BAcC register, which allows acupuncturists to display the Accredited Voluntary Register quality mark to show their practice meets robust professional standards.

Acquiring student membership of the BAcC while studying, offers you access to a student website, copy of the in-house publication and advice on setting up your own practice once you are qualified.

It's not essential to have previous experience in healthcare to get onto an acupuncture course. Knowledge of biological sciences is helpful but attitude, personal qualities and life experience are equally important. Personal experience of successful treatment and any experience of teaching, counselling, advice work, massage or nursing may be useful.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • good communication and interpersonal skills in order to explain treatment processes and establish a positive rapport with clients
  • the ability to put patients at ease
  • an open, non-judgemental approach
  • effective organisational, marketing and financial skills, in order to set up and run a successful business.

Work experience

Although it is likely you will be self-employed, some time spent shadowing a qualified acupuncturist before you start practicing, would be beneficial. This will enable you to observe, not only technique, but also patient care and the running of a clinic.

Employers

The vast majority of acupuncturists are self-employed and work from their own home or premises or visit patients' homes. There are some who work at private multidisciplinary complementary healthcare or medical centres, where they may rent a treatment room.

A few companies, keen to enhance their employees' potential, hire acupuncturists to treat their staff.

You may occasionally find an opportunity for part-time work through the NHS or GP practices, in areas such as:

  • antenatal care
  • oncology
  • pain management.

Limited part-time work may be available in hospices or care homes.

Look for job vacancies at:

Since acupuncturists are generally self-employed, vacancy adverts are limited. For more information on setting up a business, see self-employment.

Professional development

As it's likely you will be self-employed, it's important to maintain contact with professional organisations to benefit from opportunities for training and development.

Continuing professional development (CPD) and training seminars are run by colleges and professional organisations, such as the BAcC, which acupuncturists are encouraged to attend.

If you want to increase your knowledge you may wish to take further training in areas such as:

  • specific acupuncture techniques
  • advanced acupuncture theory
  • Chinese herbal medicine
  • other holistic medical therapies.

You can also choose to specialise by undertaking specific training in areas such as:

  • addictions
  • antenatal care
  • asthma
  • HIV/AIDS
  • infertility
  • oncology
  • pain management
  • psychiatric care
  • stroke rehabilitation.

Some short courses are offered (in English) in countries such as China and Hong Kong. Doctoral study is also available.

Most UK regions have set up support groups for acupuncturists, which can be a way of seeking out professional opinion, networking and keeping abreast of opportunities for further training and development. Supervision is also encouraged.

Career prospects

There is no structured career progression for an acupuncturist and success depends very much on professional and business ability. Client numbers tend to increase as you gain experience and reputation; personal interests often determine career direction.

It's important to keep up to date with developments in the profession through continued professional development (CPD). CPD is a requirement to be a member of the BAcC.

After gaining considerable experience, it is possible for you to teach or supervise students on courses, e.g. as clinical supervisors at acupuncture colleges. You could also choose to research, write, or practise another therapy alongside acupuncture.

Acupuncturists often work in more than one location or setting, which can provide variety. There may also be opportunities to work abroad, however, you should check the specific requirements of the country you're interested in working in, as these may differ from the UK.