For a career as a herbalist you'll need an interest in helping people, practical skills and a good head for business

In this role you'll use your knowledge of plant medicines and their therapeutic applications to promote health and relieve illness. You will 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 can also be known as medical herbalists.

Responsibilities

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
  • (in some cases) grow, prepare and produce herbal medicines
  • 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 by 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.

Salary

Because of your self-employed status salaries will depend on factors such as the price you charge per hour, the number of patients you attract and your running costs and overheads.

  • You're likely to charge around £40 to £100 for an initial consultation, with the cost of any medicines you provide on top of this. Follow-up sessions are typically cheaper as they're shorter.
  • 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.

Fees charged will vary depending on a range of factors, including your location. Fees in London tend to be higher than elsewhere.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll typically work 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.

Initial consultations will usually take between one and two hours with follow-up consultations lasting around 30 minutes to one hour.

What to expect

  • You may need to 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'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.

Qualifications

To work as a herbalist you should complete a in BSc Herbal Medicine, accredited by the European Herbal & Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association (EHTPA). Accredited courses are currently provided by:

A new distance learning course from Heartwood is in the process of being accredited by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH). Contact NIMH for further details.

Courses last three years full time, or five to six years part time, and include a combination of theory and clinical training.

On graduation you're eligible to become a member of the NIMH or another relevant professional body. There is currently no statutory regulation in place for herbalists.

Masters courses are available for herbalists who have an accredited BSc in herbal medicine. Search for postgraduate courses in herbal medicine.

Skills

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 and business
  • commitment and perseverance
  • the ability to maintain appropriate boundaries between yourself and your patients.

Work experience

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. A list of herbalists is available on the NIMH website.

Employers

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 NIMH herbal register.

For more information on setting up a business, see self-employment.

Professional development

Once you've successfully completed your accredited honours degree in herbal medicine, you're eligible to apply for membership of the NIMH. They run a mandatory Initial Professional Development Programme (IPDP) for all new members. This covers:

  • induction - what being a professional and a member of NIMH means
  • development - establishing and building a practice and your identity as a practitioner
  • support - mentoring practice management support.

Following completion of the IPDP, you'll need to carry out continuing professional development (CPD) throughout your career to make sure you maintain high levels of safe and legal practice, as well as keeping up to date with developments in herbal medicines and studies on plants. To do this, you can:

  • attend conferences 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.

Much of your education will take place throughout clinical practice and grows with experience of both patients and plants.

You may also want to take business-related courses in areas such as marketing and finance.

Career prospects

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:

  • aromatherapy
  • homeopathy
  • massage
  • osteopathy.

Some herbalists work with other providers of complementary therapies at complementary health centres.

There are also some opportunities for experienced herbalists to move into teaching or training. You may 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.