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A Decade of Complementary Therapies Provision

by Dr Brian Isbell(more info)

listed in integrated medicine, originally published in issue 135 - May 2007

The Context

The main providers of courses in Complementary Therapies (CT) prior to 1990 were the private colleges. The first ‘mainstream’ CT providers were Further and Adult Education Institutes, in many cases building on their established programmes in health and beauty. The first UK universities to validate CT courses entered the field in the early 1990s, frequently drawing on their experience of offering provision for healthcare professionals, such as Nursing, Midwifery and Health Sciences.

The growth in university provision in Complementary Therapies began to accelerate from 1995. An example of this is the University of Westminster’s BSc Complementary Therapies scheme of courses that commenced in 1996 and has rapidly grown.[1,2,3] The current portfolio of over 30 full-time and part-time courses (Please see Table 1) mirrors the rapid expansion nationally of CT provision within universities. A decade ago there were less than five UK University courses, currently there are in the order of one hundred.[4] Many of the universities that provide several courses in Complementary Therapies are located in southern England near London, where it is possible to call on National experts who live or work within travelling distance in Southern England. Within London, the University of Westminster, Middlesex, Thames Valley University and Greenwich each offer a range of courses, the majority of which complement the part-time or distance learning provision of private colleges. In some cases the relationship between universities and the private colleges has led to the colleges providing the specialist skills of the therapy for the university. In other cases, for some osteopathy, chiropractic, herbal medicine, nutritional therapy and homeopathy programmes, universities have externally validated the courses of the private providers. Over the past decade universities have, therefore, contributed in many different ways to the development of CT course provision within the UK.

Table 1
Complementary Therapies at The University of Westminster
BSc (Hons) degree Scheme – full- and part-time:
Complementary Therapies, Herbal Medicine, Homeopathy, Therapeutic Bodywork, Naturopathy, Nutritional Therapy
Traditional Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture
Graduate Diplomas in Herbal Medicine, Homeopathy, Nutritional Therapy, Therapeutic Bodywork and Acupuncture – only available to graduates of the BSc Scheme
Diploma in Qigong Tuina
MSc Chinese Herbal Medicine
MSc in Advanced Professional Practice with specialization available in:
Acupuncture, Complementary Therapies, Herbal Medicine, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Nutritional Therapy, Supervision, Stress Management, Therapeutic Bodywork.
Foundation Certificate in Health Sciences for Complementary Medicine.
Diploma in Health Sciences for Complementary Therapies.
Undergraduate and postgraduate short courses.


Course Structure

One of the themes in most university courses is Health Sciences, which is needed to ensure that graduates are able to effectively communicate with other healthcare professionals, as well as be aware of when referral is necessary. The Foundation for Integrated Medicine in 1997,[5] and the Select Committee of the House of Lords in 2000,[6] identified the need for this component in CT courses. The health sciences component normally systematically progresses through the biomedical model from biochemistry, anatomy and physiology to pathophysiology, and in many cases includes differential diagnosis, especially the identification of ‘red flags’ where decisions about referral are discussed. In many courses a second theme is Practitioner Development skills that ensure that throughout the degree course students develop their interpersonal, communication and reflective skills in preparation for their future careers. This theme may also include business skills to prepare students for starting their careers. A third important theme is research skills, that is progressively developed and integrated over all of the levels of the degree courses and culminates in BSc Honours programmes with a research project in the final year. The findings of some of these projects are already being published in professional journals, thereby contributing to the research literature of therapies.[7,8,9,10] In addition, university courses normally include a module in Complementary Therapies so that students are not only familiar with the wide diversity of the field of Complementary Medicine, but also, in the future, patient referral decisions will be well-informed. A unique feature of the University of Westminster’s courses is that these themes are taught in mixed groups, so students learn to work with those studying different therapies, preparing them for working in multidisciplinary practices.

Students who graduate from university courses can usually look forward to excellent employment opportunities, as they are multi-skilled. Their courses enable them to be conversant with Health Sciences, develop good communication and research skills, as well as being able to cope with the challenge of models for their therapies that do not necessarily fit aspects of the current scientific model. Such a wealth of skills means that graduates normally rapidly find employment, not only by setting up their own private practice, or by working within the NHS, but also in teaching or management or organization positions within the Health Service or Nutriceutical industry.

Comprehensive Clinical Experience

The University of Westminster has set up its own clinic where students are able to develop their clinical skills. For example, the University of Westminster’s provision is able to draw on the expertise of a team of almost 100 practitioners who are in private or NHS practice for up to half of their employment, therefore, ensuring knowledge and skills are current and informed by clinical experience and application to practice. For the remainder of their employment these practitioners teach the knowledge and skills of the therapy within the courses, as well as supervise in the clinic, ensuring continuity in the learning experience of the students. However, while most other universities have relied upon external clinics, some have or even relied on placements with private practitioners. In such circumstances, careful quality assurance is required to ensure continuity and comparability of learning experience for the students. In 1999, the Prince of Wales opened the University of Westminster’s Polyclinic, where the wide range of therapies available (see Table 2) also enables students to gain experience observing those practising a wide range of different modalities. In such cases, the students’ clinical experiences help to consolidate their knowledge of other therapies, in preparation for practising in multidisciplinary practices and referring patients to, as well as accepting them from, other complementary therapists. The students’ clinical experiences are further enriched when universities offer placements in the NHS, voluntary sector as well as private practice.

Table 2
Therapies within the Polyclinic:
Chinese Herbal Medicine
Craniosacral Therapy
Herbal Medicine
Nutritional therapy
Qigong Tuina
Therapeutic Massage

Importance of Professional Bodies

The professional bodies of each therapy are an invaluable resource in the on-going evaluation, quality assurance and development of the course provision. Professional bodies are a catalyst to ensure programmes continue to meet the entry requirements of the profession, and short courses are able to contribute to the provision of continuing professional development. The professional bodies are an invaluable resource, facilitating the sharing of good practice across UK University and private college providers.

The International Dimension

Degrees are an internationally recognized qualification, so it is not surprising that many applicants come from overseas, as their country of origin may not be able to provide courses in the wide range of therapies available in the universities and private colleges within the UK. The majority of international applicants to UK university courses tend to come from the European Economic Community (EEC). However, the catchments of courses frequently include North America, South Africa, Australia and Japan. The origin and number of students on such courses has closely reflected the rapid expansion of the EEC. The steady development of a more international profile for the students of the courses has provided enrichment for all to learn.

As the reputation of UK university provision has grown, the number of approaches from overseas for advice on setting up education, training and research in Complementary Therapies has increased. Government, university and college delegations from North and South America, China, the Middle East, Africa, Australia and Europe have visited UK providers. Some staff of UK universities have completed exchanges with overseas institutions, and it is hoped that this aspect of staff development and opportunity to share good practice will grow, developing the reputation of the UK university provision, internationally. Through the future development of links, it is hoped that students will be able to complete parts of their courses in another country, giving an international dimension to their knowledge and skills.

Postgraduate Courses and Research

In addition to BSc courses, universities are now beginning to develop postgraduate provision. One such scheme is the innovative MSc in Advanced Professional Practice at the University of Westminster, which has been developed so that students who are normally practitioners are able to specialize in the therapy of their practice. This MSc scheme is designed for those who wish to plan their continuing professional development, to develop their therapeutic skills and maximize their learning from practice. Research Centres have been established in some universities so that the increasing number of practitioners wishing to pursue MPhil and PhD degrees may be accommodated. Universities are now beginning to attract Government funding so that the mechanism, efficacy and the application of therapies can be researched. For example, the University of Westminster has attracted almost two million pounds of research grants over the past five years, as well as receiving Government funding for the formation of the Centre for Excellence in Professional Learning from the Workplace. One of the roles of the Centre is to develop innovative ways of maximizing learning from clinical practice in Complementary Therapies. The Centre will be able to offer advice and training to course providers to improve the effectiveness of clinical training. Another development within the University of Westminster has been the formation of the iCAM unit, which is developing courses and knowledge transfer systems to disseminate information about clinical governance standards, to Complementary Therapies students and practitioners throughout the UK. iCAM’s ‘Integrated Health Network’ is facilitating the exchange and transfer of knowledge, peer learning and promoting best practice across the healthcare professions. A series of continuing professional development seminars is provided each year on key aspects of NHS primary care CAM service provision, as well as quality and safety assurance.

The National Library for Health, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialist Library ( has been established to provide access to the best available evidence of the effectiveness of therapies. The project evaluates the value of Complementary Therapies for the current health priorities of the UK National Health Service. A consortium of the University of Westminster, the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and the Research Council for Complementary Medicine runs the library.

Some universities have been successful in attracting Department of Health (DoH) funding to host post-doctoral research fellows. In the first round, over 40 universities submitted bids identifying that they could host such researchers. However, the money has only financed nine research fellows across the country. Although this relatively small research fund was initially ring fenced, pressure from other healthcare professions on the DoH led to the diversion of the money to other health research.

The Future

The development of collaboration with private providers has enabled universities to provide programmes in CT, as well as for universities to externally validate the courses of private providers. Over the past decade, universities have, in most cases focused on full-time degree provision, which frequently complements the part-time, and in some cases distance learning courses of private colleges. Through the resources available within universities, the CT profession is benefiting from Government-funded opportunities for research and developments not available in the private sector. By building on the progress made over the past decade, through sharing of good practice, collaboration with professional bodies and private providers, universities will be able to continue to make a major contribution to the provision of practitioners to meet the challenges of working in the healthcare system of the 21st century.


1.    Isbell B. Complementary Therapies Courses for the 21st century. Complementary Ther Nursing Midwifery. 7: 90-94. 2001.
2.    Isbell B. Clinical training in Complementary Therapies for the 21st century. Complementary Ther Nursing Midwifery. 9: 83-89. 2003.
3.    Isbell B, Coldham S, Elliott R and Shaw S. Working towards integrated healthcare: developing Complementary Therapies at the University of Westminster. Complementary Ther Nursing Midwifery. 9: 114-117. 2003.
4.    Isbell B. Finding the Right Complementary Therapies Course. Complementary Ther Nursing Midwifery. 10: 92-96. 2004.
5.    Foundation for Integrated Medicine. Integrated Healthcare – A Way forward for the next five years. London. England. The Foundation for Integrated Medicine. 1997.
6.    House of Lords. Sixth Report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. HL123. London. England. Stationery Office. 2000.
7.    Neira SD, Elliott R and Isbell B. Can craniosacral treatment improve the general wellbeing of Patients? Fulcrum. 38: 6-9. 2006.
8.    Norton D and Isbell B. Combining Homeopathy and Craniosacral Therapy – the Practitioner’s Perspective. Homeopathy in Practice. Spring. 34-38. 2006.
9.    Isbell B, Neira SD and Elliott R. Craniosacral Therapy Research. Fulcrum. 37: 6 & 7. 2006.
10.    Norton D and Isbell B. The Therapeutic Potential of Integration. Fulcrum. 34: 8-10. 2004.

Further Information

Please contact the University of Westminster. Tel: 020-7911 5883; Fax: 020-7911 5079; ;
For further information about the Polyclinic. Tel: 020-7911 5041;


  1. Eva Garcia said..

    HI. My name is Eva, I am going cracy trying to find information about your MSc in Advanced Professional Practice with specialization in therapeutic bodywork.
    Could you please facilitate any information about it?
    Thanks for your attention

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About Dr Brian Isbell

Brian Isbell PhD BSc DO MRN is the Head of the Department of Chinese Medicine and Complementary Therapies in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Westminster. The current degree Scheme is the largest portfolio of complementary medicine courses in Europe.

Brian is an Osteopath, Naturopath and Cranial Therapist and has worked within the NHS and the University of Westminster's multidisciplinary Polyclinic for several years. Brian has taught biomedical sciences and complementary medicine for over 30 years. He may be contacted via

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