For a career as a herbalist you'll need an interest in helping people, the right practical skills and a good head for business
As a herbalist you'll use your knowledge of plant medicines and their therapeutic applications to promote health and relieve illness. You'll take a holistic approach to treating patients, looking at the underlying causes of the illness and not just the symptoms, and will prescribe herbal remedies to be used alongside other treatments and medicines.
Herbalists are also known as medical herbalists.
As a herbalist, you'll need to:
- carry out initial consultations with patients to diagnose a condition or illness
- carry out physical tests and other assessments
- use your knowledge of plant remedies to prescribe medicines appropriate for the treatment of a range of illnesses, with the aim of assisting the body's own healing properties
- grow, prepare and produce herbal medicines in some cases
- refer patients to other health practitioners where appropriate
- use a holistic approach to advise patients on diet and lifestyle
- undertake follow-up appointments to assess patient progress
- maintain accurate patient records
- be on call to patients, either in person, by phone or over email
- keep a welcoming, professional practice area, particularly if working from home
- keep up to date with new research
- work to high ethical and professional standards.
As herbalists are self-employed, you'll also need to carry out activities related to running a business.
- You're likely to charge between £45 and £100 for an initial consultation, which usually lasts an hour (although it may be up to two hours in some cases). The fees you can charge will depend on a range of factors, including your location. Fees in London tend to be higher than elsewhere.
- Follow-up sessions are typically cheaper as they're shorter. These can last from 20 to 40 minutes and you'll charge accordingly.
- The cost of any medicines provided is in addition to these fees.
Your income on starting out may be very low due to the initial costs of setting up a business and the limited number of patients. Factors affecting your income include the price you charge per hour, the number of patients you attract, your running costs and overheads, and whether you work from home or in practice with other practitioners.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
You'll typically do a standard working week, although you may need to be flexible to suit your clients' needs. For example, you may choose to work some evenings or weekends. You can work either full or part time.
What to expect
- You may need 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'll need to assess the local market and raise awareness of your services.
- 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 cities, large towns and rural areas.
- Experienced herbalists may work on a consultancy basis or as an employee, undertaking research for herbal growers and product manufacturers.
- You're not likely to spend much time travelling or staying away overnight, although you may visit patients in their home.
Herbalism is not currently a regulated profession and there are no specific entry requirements to become a herbalist. However, you should complete a degree-level course in herbal medicine accredited by the European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association (EHTPA), which is formed of a number of professional herbal practitioner associations, or by The National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH).
Courses typically last three years full time, or five to six years part time, and include a combination of theory and clinical training. You'll cover areas such as anatomy, diagnostic skills, dispensing, health psychology, pathology and physiology, as well as learning the art of herbal medicine.
EHTPA accredits undergraduate and postgraduate herbal medicine degree courses, and once graduated you can become a member of one or more of the professional associations making up EHTPA.
The NIMH accepts applications for membership from graduates with an accredited programme of Western herbal medicine. You may be able to apply without an accredited course via their Individual Accreditation Scheme if you meet their fitness to practise criteria. Contact NIMH for further details.
These associations may have extra entry criteria, for example an interview, criminal records check or declaration about your health, which you'll need to fulfil before you can become a member. Check with individual bodies.
Membership of a professional association will also enable you to get professional insurance. Research your options carefully and make sure you choose a course relevant to your career aims.
You'll need to have:
- 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 and business
- commitment and perseverance
- the ability to maintain appropriate boundaries between yourself and your patients.
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.
Lists of registered herbalists are available on the websites of the member organisations of EHTPA and on the NIMH website.
Herbalists are self-employed and you're most likely to set up your own practice after you've completed your accredited degree in herbal medicine.
You can choose to work from home and adapt a part of your home into a space in which to diagnose and treat patients. Alternatively, you can be based in a complementary health clinic or herbal dispensary, working as part of a team with other alternative health practitioners. These can include acupuncturists, shiatsu practitioners and aromatherapists.
Make sure you're listed on the herbal register for your area of herbal medicine. These registers are held by the member organisations of EHTPA and the NIMH. As a member of a professional association you must also abide by their code of conduct, practice and ethics.
For more information on setting up a business, see self-employment.
Once qualified, you'll need to undertake continuing professional development (CPD) throughout your career in order to make sure you maintain high levels of safe and legal practice, as well as keep up to date with developments in herbal medicines and studies on plants. Much of your education will take place throughout clinical practice and grows with experience of both patients and plants. However, you can also:
- attend conferences, lectures and seminars to update your clinical skills and therapeutic knowledge
- join a study group to develop your knowledge in a specific subject area such as nutrition
- do further study at Masters level or undertake research at PhD level.
CPD opportunities are provided by members of EHPTA:
- British Association of Traditional Tibetan Medicine (BATTM)
- College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy (CPP)
- Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM)
- Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners (URHP)
In addition, the CPP runs a buddy system for new and established members to help build confidence and reduce isolation. The NIHM also has a mandatory programme of professional development for its members.
You may also want to take business-related courses in areas such as marketing and finance.
Learning to manage a practice takes time and you must be committed to developing a role in which, for the short and medium term, salary levels and numbers of clients may be low. 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.
Once you've successfully established your practice, you may decide to offer other complementary therapies to patients. These may include:
Some herbalists work with other providers of complementary therapies at complementary health centres.
There are some opportunities for experienced herbalists to move into teaching or training. You may also choose to undertake research into the medical applications of herbal remedies.
Consultancy and public relations work may be available with companies involved in the natural health product industry.