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Why develop degrees in Complementary Therapies?

by Dr Brian Isbell(more info)

listed in integrated medicine, originally published in issue 39 - April 1999

By September 1998 at least ten Universities in the UK were enrolling students in degrees on Complementary Therapies. Some of the universities were offering places on up to six different courses. Most of the courses are in the more established therapies such as osteopathy, chiropractic, herbal medicine, acupuncture and homeopathy. Other therapies are also beginning to enter universities such as naturopathy, nutritional therapy, aromatherapy and reflexology. However, some higher education courses contain components as diverse as Thai Yoga Massage, Kinesiology, Bach Flower Remedies, Healing and Environmental Stress.

Why the sudden interest in the 'alternatives'?

What has made the 'alternatives' so acceptable to the normally conservative universities?

The recent growth in educational provision has been encouraged by public interest in complementary therapies and the accompanying demand for qualified therapists. This public demand has been a major factor in increasing the provision of complementary medicine in the National Health Service. It is estimated that nearly 40% of GP partnerships in England provide access to complementary therapies for NHS patients.

A major contribution to the recognition of complementary therapies has arisen out of orthodox biomedicine's more positive approach towards the more established therapies. In particular the positive views expressed in 1993 in the British Medical Association's Complementary Medicine: New Approaches to Good Practice.

The establishment of national registers for osteopathy and chiropractic has further demonstrated a national recognition of what may have been previously labelled as 'alternatives'.

Further education colleges have provided courses in complementary therapies for over a decade. These courses have frequently been very popular.

Students wishing to move on, after completing these college courses, usually are enthusiastic mature students that most universities are eager to snap up.

Most universities who have turned to offering courses in complementary therapies have developed the courses in departments with established health sciences or nursing provision. Good quality health sciences provision is frequently a major component of degrees in complementary therapies. With the reduction in demand for nurse and biomedical education the use of the health sciences provision for complementary therapies courses, in many cases, came as a welcome means of maintaining student numbers.

Some providers of nurse education have also responded to demands from the profession to provide a range of options within courses as well as continuing professional development and therefore have made available components such as massage, aromatherapy and reflexology.

The reason for a particular university's decision to develop provision in complementary therapies is likely to be a combination of one or more of the above factors.

What characterises a good degree in a complementary therapy?

An in-depth understanding of the orthodox medical model is vital if complementary therapists are to be able to communicate effectively with other healthcare professionals to provide a more integrated medical provision. Complementary therapists have to be well informed to ensure that they are able to respond appropriately to the patient's searching questions. For this reason a degree would include a study of health sciences including: anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, nutrition, pathology and differential diagnosis.

All BSc Honours degrees have as an integral component, the requirement that students must develop their research skills and carry out a research project on an aspect of their specialisation. The development of research data in the field of complementary therapies is vital if the profession is going to be able to convince sceptics of the value of the therapeutic approach.

Another essential component of degree courses is practitioner development skills. Without effective interpersonal and reflective skills how would graduates make good practitioners?

Some students receive their education alongside those studying other therapies, such as herbal medicine, homoeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractic. The shared teaching environment enables students to learn first hand about other complementary therapies. In addition, one university has established a 'Polyclinic' which provides the environment where students receive their clinical training alongside those of the other therapies. Acquiring their clinical training in such an environment prepares students for work in multidisciplinary teams.

What's next?

Some universities already have postgraduate MSc courses available for practitioners of complementary therapies. Future developments are likely to include the opportunity of MPhil and PhD studies.

The nature of many undergraduate programmes also provides a valuable opportunity for practitioners to select modules for Continuing Professional Development.

Through such quality degree provision graduates will be able to work effectively with other healthcare professionals. Such practitioners will be well prepared to cope with the demands of integrated medicine in the twenty-first century.


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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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