Herbalists use their knowledge of plant medicines and their therapeutic applications to promote health and relieve illness.
They are can be known as medical herbalists or herbal practitioners.
Herbal medicine, also known as phytotherapy, is a holistic health system that aims to address the needs of patients by working at a physical, physiological and emotional level, exploring the underlying causes as well as the symptoms of illness.
Herbalists treat a range of illnesses, allergies and chronic physical conditions by using the whole plant, part of the plant (such as the leaf) or a preparation of the plant, in order to maximise the human body's healing capacities.
Modern herbal medicine combines traditional herbal philosophy and knowledge with modern medical understanding.
These are likely to include:
- carrying out initial consultations with patients to diagnose a condition or illness - usually comprising a physical examination, blood pressure and pulse readings, a series of detailed questions covering all the systems of the body, and sometimes observation and assessment of a patient's body language and other factors;
- using knowledge of plant remedies to prescribe medicines appropriate for the treatment of a wide range of illnesses, with the aim of assisting the body's own healing properties;
- growing, preparing and producing herbal medicines;
- referring patients to other health practitioners, where appropriate;
- using a holistic approach to advise patients on diet and lifestyle;
- undertaking follow-up appointments to assess patient progress;
- maintaining accurate patient records;
- being on call to patients, either in person, by phone or by email;
- maintaining a welcoming, professional practice area, particularly if working from home;
- teaching and supporting trainee herbalists;
- keeping up to date with new research;
- working to high ethical and professional standards.
Most herbalists are self-employed. This requires all the skills involved with managing a business, which may include:
- marketing services to potential patients and establishing a practice;
- managing budgeting and tax;
- maintaining levels of stock;
- small-scale staff management.
Experienced herbalists may work on a consultancy basis or as an employee, undertaking research for herbal growers and product manufacturers.
- Most herbalists are self-employed and so your salary will depend on the price you charge per hour and the number of patients you attract.
- Starting salaries are usually very low owing to the initial costs of setting up a business and the limited number of patients. However, a well-established practitioner can earn £15,000 to £30,000 a year.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are usually 9am to 5pm, although some flexibility is needed to suit client needs. Work patterns depend on individual choice, but successful practitioners usually work some late hours. Herbalists are usually self-employed and may work on a full-time or part-time basis.
Career breaks are possible but need to be balanced against professional responsibilities to patients.
What to expect
- You may have an additional job in the early stages of setting up a practice, until your client base becomes large enough to sustain a regular income. The time taken to build up a practice varies as you will need to assess the viability of the local market and raise awareness of services, often through word of mouth.
- Work is done on a one-to-one basis and takes place in a clinic, GP surgery or in your own home or a client's home.
- Opportunities exist in most large towns, cities and rural areas.
- While the job may be demanding (and isolating for lone practitioners), it can also be very rewarding.
- Travel within a working day and absence from home overnight are not common. There may be occasional opportunities for overseas work or travel.
To work as a herbalist you should complete a BSc Herbal Medicine accredited by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) or one of the other organisations represented by the European Herbal & Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association (EHTPA) (umbrella body of professional associations of which NIMH is a member). See the NIMH website for a list of courses.
Entry onto accredited courses generally requires a minimum of five GCSES and two or three A-levels, including one in biology. Contact individual institutions for specific course requirements.
Courses typically last three years full time or five to six years part time and include a minimum of 500 hours of supervised clinical training. Key subject areas covered include:
- nutrition and conventional medicine.
Masters courses are available for herbalists who have an accredited BSc in herbal medicine, Search for postgraduate courses in herbal medicine.
You will need to show:
- knowledge and understanding of herbs and their preparation, in addition to knowledge of physiology and anatomy;
- a sense of vocation, to heal and support patients;
- excellent communication and listening skills and a strong interest in people;
- a high level of emotional maturity and resilience;
- the confidence to promote your services if you are working on a self-employed basis;
- commitment and perseverance;
- the ability to maintain appropriate boundaries between yourself and your patients.
The Department of Health is considering bringing in statutory regulation for herbalists, which would have implications for the entry requirements and training into the profession
Try to gain work experience in a dispensary or clinic before studying. Contact herbalists in your local area and ask to shadow them during patient consultations.
The majority of herbalists plan to set up their own practices after they qualify.
Some herbalists choose to work from home and adapt a part of their home into a space in which to diagnose and treat patients.
More commonly, herbalists are based at complementary health clinics or herbal dispensaries, working as part of a team with other alternative health practitioners. These can include acupuncturists, shiatsu practitioners and aromatherapists.
Success depends on your ability to establish and build your reputation, which in turn depends largely on the amount of effort you put into building and marketing your business.
The majority of medical herbalists work on a self-employed basis, developing their own practices. For more information on setting up a business, see self-employment.
The very few vacancies that arise are generally published by the in-house journals of relevant professional bodies, in particular the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH).
Make sure you are listed in the NIMH online register of herbalists.
If you are interested in going down the consultancy route, look for vacancies on natural health product company websites.
Once you have completed a BSc Herbal Medicine accredited by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) or the European Herbal & Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association (EHTPA) you are eligible to apply for membership of NIMH.
New members must take part in the NIMH Initial Professional Development Programme (IPDP), which covers:
- induction - what being a professional/member of NIMH means;
- development - continuing professional development (CPD), establishing a practice and your identity as a practitioner;
- support - mentoring and practice/practice management support.
Following completion of the IPDP, all NIMH members are required to carry out ongoing CPD. Activities include attending NIMH conferences and seminars to update clinical skills and therapeutic knowledge. There are also research opportunities available for members.
Qualified herbalists may want to consider joining another association represented by EHTPA or a mixed therapy organisation such as the Institute for Complementary and Natural Medicine (ICNM), which administers the British Register of Complementary Practitioners (BRCP).
Much of a herbalist's education takes place throughout clinical practice and grows with experience of both patients and plants. Herbalists must keep up to date with new research, legislation and studies on plants and herbal medicines.
Training courses are available on the various practical aspects of running a business. However, learning to manage a practice takes time and effort. Commitment to developing a role in which, for the short and medium term, salary levels and numbers of clients may be low, is essential.
In order to develop a successful career, you will need to be prepared to dedicate time and energy to the initial establishment of a practice. Acquiring new patients, which is crucial to career development, can take some time, especially as new patients are often attracted by word of mouth.
Developing a business often involves raising public awareness of the benefits of herbal medicine. Other ways of developing a practice include giving presentations and lectures, running workshops and making use of networking opportunities.
After successfully qualifying and setting up a practice, many herbalists develop their skills and offer other complementary therapies to patients. These may include:
- bach flower remedies.
Diversifying into other areas is also likely to increase the number of patients and, therefore, the size of the practice.
Some herbalists work with other providers of complementary therapies at complementary health centres. It may also be possible for herbalists with experience to move into teaching or training.
Research into the medical applications of herbal remedies is another possibility. Consultancy and public relations work may be available with companies involved in the natural health product industry.