In recent years the number of acupuncture graduates opting to train in Chinese herbal medicine appears to have diminished. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Training in Chinese medicine has become more expensive, time consuming and exhausting. Many people who complete their acupuncture training feel they don’t have the personal or economic resources to follow this with another 2-3 year course in herbal medicine. This reluctance may have been compounded by the uncertainty in recent years over the availability of herbal products and the status of herbal practitioners. Hopefully resources recover with time, but what is really going on with regard to the ability of herbalists to administer their medicines?
Changes in the availability of herbal products relate mostly to over the counter remedies distributed without any consultation via health food stores and pharmacies. These products must now be licensed under the Traditional Herbal Medicines Product Directive. This does not relate to dried, granular or decocted herbs prescribed by a herbalist after a one-to-one consultation, which are under the jurisdiction of the 2012 Human Medicines Regulation Act and have no need for a separate product license. These herbs are, and will continue to be, readily available from qualified practitioners.
The status of herbal practitioners is another area where there has been considerable confusion. Despite the recommendations of several government working parties that herbalists become statutorily regulated, the most recently commissioned ‘Walker report’ considers this un-necessary. The UK government has yet to make a formal response to Professor Walker’s recommendations but it seems likely, especially given the over-riding demands of Brexit negotiations, that they will accept them. Whilst this is an unfortunate U-turn and a wasted opportunity to regulate professional standards, it will not affect the right of a herbalist to practice.
So herbalists and the herbal medicines they use are as secure now as they have been for many years and there is nothing on the horizon threatening to undermine these positions.
Studying Chinese herbal medicine
Studying herbal medicine is still a demanding proposition and is not something for the faint hearted, but for those who relish a challenge and want to optimise their practice, the rewards of a herbal training are well worth the effort required. The next most important consideration for anyone interested in becoming a Chinese herbal practitioner is to identify a course that will equip you to practice herbal medicine with confidence and competence.
At this point I would like to share something from my own experience.
My first tentative steps along the path of herbal medicine came in my first year at university when I was studying English literature, but also heavily involved in a busy extra curricular schedule of martial arts, Chinese Yoga, Chinese hand analysis, and a rather esoteric form of Japanese Shingon Buddhism. One of our teachers was also a Western herbalist and I remember clearly walking with him in a small park in Norwich. Every few steps he would stop and point out an innocuous plant like dandelion, chickweed, nettle, and plantain and tell me what they were used for in herbal medicine. This for me was my ‘light bulb’ moment! The fact that these mundane weeds could be used to treat common medical conditions created a sense of wonder about the natural world we live in. I still have this sense of wonder 35 years later and if anything my appreciation of its potency and the importance of our need to recognise its value have increased over time.
As I was so involved in Oriental healing arts it was natural for me to gravitate towards studying Chinese medicine. At the time you could only study Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) as part of an acupuncture training so I found a small college run by an intense, maverick, Cantonese doctor in a basement in Baker Street. I spent most weekends over the next 3 years at this college going nowhere slowly until I realised I needed to start again and that I would never be able to practice if I did not feel confident that I had the basics of Chinese and Western medicine in place. I spent another 4 years studying acupuncture and herbs at a number of different colleges. My rather haphazard and inefficient learning experience taught me a few things. First of all CHM was a subject of great depth, subtlety, and therapeutic potency that I loved and wanted to dedicate my life to studying. Secondly I also felt that the standard of education for Chinese medicine was, in general, inadequate, and my basic training lacked theoretical and clinical rigour. I needed to fill the obvious holes in my training…and find and fill the other holes that I was still unaware of.
In many ways the past 25 years have been about filling these gaps. Un-surprisingly like the legendary hydra…once one gap has been filled two more appear, but at least the foundations feel solid, I feel capable of treating serious medical conditions, and I manage a busy and successful herbal practice.