Oriental medicine practitioners, or OM practitioners, are health care professionals who practice a variety of health care therapies that are part of the ancient healing system of Oriental medicine. Oriental medicine is a comprehensive system of health care. It includes several major modalities: acupuncture, Chinese herbology, Oriental bodywork or massage, exercise, and dietary therapy. Each of these major areas has numerous variations, but all forms are based on traditional Oriental medicine principles. A practitioner may practice one or many of the therapies of Oriental medicine.
More than one-third of the world’s population relies on Oriental medicine practitioners for the enhancement of health and for prevention and treatment of disease. In the West, Oriental medicine is rapidly growing in popularity as an alternative health care system. There are more than 14,000 Oriental medicine/acupuncture practitioners in the United States.
Oriental Medicine Practitioner Career History
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has over 3,000 years of clinical history. The basic principles of TCM were first recorded in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (Huang Di Nei Ching) in China approximately 2,300 years ago. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners continually applied, developed, and refined those principles for centuries.
Oriental medicine is based on an energetic model of health that is fundamentally different from the biochemical model of Western medicine. The ancient Chinese recognized a vital energy that they believed to be the animating force behind all life. They called this life force qi (pronounced chee). They discovered that the body’s qi flows along specific channels—called meridians—in the body. Each meridian is related to a particular physiological system and internal organ. When the body’s qi is unbalanced, or when the flow of qi along the channels is blocked or disrupted, disease, pain, and other physical and emotional conditions result. The fundamental purpose of all forms of Oriental medicine is to restore and maintain balance in the body’s qi.
As traditional Chinese medicine spread gradually throughout Southeast Asia, each culture adapted the principles of TCM to its own healing methods. The Japanese, Koreans, and other Asian peoples contributed to the development of the ancient Chinese principles and developed their own variations. In recognition of the contributions of many Asian cultures, TCM is now referred to as traditional Oriental medicine (TOM), or simply Oriental medicine (OM).
Since the advent of quantum physics, the Western world has developed a new interest in and appreciation for the bioenergetic model of health of the Oriental world. Western physics is generating a new science of resonance and energy fields that proposes that a person is more a “resonating field” than a substance. Oriental medicine is completely consistent with this concept.
Oriental medicine practitioners are increasingly consulted in Europe, North America, and Russia for general maintenance of health, treatment of disease, and relief of pain. Since the 1970s, acupuncture and Oriental medicine have been among the fastest growing forms of health care in the United States. During the last decade of the 20th century, the increasing interest in alternative medicine in the United States and throughout the world brought Oriental medicine practitioners to the forefront of the field of alternative health care.
Oriental Medicine Practitioner Job Description
Oriental medicine practitioners usually specialize in one or more of the healing modalities that make up Oriental medicine. In the United States, the educational career paths for OM practitioners are currently organized around acupuncture, Oriental medicine (acupuncture and Chinese herbology), and Oriental bodywork. Not all disciplines are licensed or recognized in every state. However, each specialty is based on the fundamental OM principle of diagnosing and seeking to balance disturbances of qi.
Oriental medicine practitioners begin a new relationship with a client by taking a careful history. Next, they use the traditional Chinese approach called the “four examinations” for evaluation and diagnosis. These include asking questions, looking, listening/smelling, and touching. OM practitioners use the four examinations to identify signs and symptoms. They synthesize all they learn about the individual into a vivid profile of the whole person, which includes the mind, body, and spirit. The first appointment generally requires an hour or more.
While examining a patient, the practitioner looks for any sign of disharmony. The results of the evaluation and diagnosis determine the course of therapy. Depending on a practitioner’s training and on the needs of the individual client, the OM practitioner may recommend one or more of the major modalities: acupuncture, Chinese herbology, Oriental bodywork, exercise, or dietary therapy.
In the West, acupuncture is the best-known form of traditional Oriental medicine, and it is sometimes considered synonymous with Oriental medicine. Acupuncture is a complete medical system that encourages the body to improve functioning and promote natural healing. Acupuncturists help clients maintain good health and also treat symptoms and disorders. They insert very thin needles into precise points on the skin that stimulate the area and work to balance the circulation of energy. For more detailed information, see the article Acupuncturists.
In the United States, most of the modalities of traditional Chinese medicine are now frequently considered under the more general term of Oriental medicine. However, even practitioners from Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries still consider Chinese herbology to be uniquely Chinese. Chinese herbology (also known as the Chinese herbal sciences) studies the properties of herbs, their energetics, and their therapeutic qualities. It has a 2,000-year history as a distinct body of knowledge, independent of acupuncture. Chinese herbalists practice herbal science according to the principles of Oriental medicine. After performing a careful evaluation and diagnosis, they determine which herbs can be used to help restore the balance of a patient’s qi. Chinese herbalists develop formulas based on the unique combination of the individual’s characteristics, symptoms, and primary complaints.
Tuina, or Tui Na (both pronounced twee nah), is a form of Oriental bodywork or massage that has been used in China for 2,000 years. It is sometimes referred to as Oriental physical therapy. Tuina practitioners seek to establish a more harmonious flow of qi through the channels (meridians) of the body. They accomplish this through a variety of different systems: massage, acupressure (similar to acupuncture, but using pressure from fingers and hands instead of needles), energy generation exercises, and manipulation. The tuina practitioner evaluates the individual’s specific problems and develops a treatment plan that emphasizes acupressure points and energy meridians as well as pain sites, muscles, and joints. Unlike traditional Western types of massage that involve a more generalized treatment, tuina focuses on specific problem areas. Treatments usually last half an hour to an hour. The number of sessions depends on the needs of the client. Some Oriental bodywork practitioners use Chinese herbs to assist the healing process.
Qigong, also spelled Qi Gong or Chi Kung (all pronounced chee goong), is a Chinese system of exercise, philosophy, and health care. It is a healing art that combines movement and meditation. The Chinese character qi means life force the character gong means to cultivate or engage. Hence, qigong literally means to cultivate one’s life force or vital energy. Qigong has five major traditions: Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, martial arts, and medical. It has more than 1,000 forms. Kung fu is an example of a martial arts qigong. T’ai qi (t’ai chi) has Taoist, martial arts, and self-healing forms. Medical qigong combines meditation with breathing exercises. Through the regular practice of qigong, the circulation of the qi is stimulated. Qigong can help body functions return to normal for those who are sick and can increase the sense of well-being for those who are already healthy.
Oriental dietary therapy helps to restore harmony to the qi through balancing what the individual eats. When the diet becomes unbalanced, it can trigger disharmony. The Oriental medicine practitioner recommends adjustments in the diet that will restore balance. The therapeutic basis for dietary therapy is the same as for Chinese herbology. The practitioner considers the energetics and therapeutic qualities of each kind of food in order to select precisely the right foods to restore balance to the individual’s qi.
In addition to working to help their clients achieve a more balanced state, Oriental medicine practitioners usually have many other duties. Most are self-employed, so they have all of the obligations of running their own businesses. They must keep records of their clients’ histories and progress and manage billing and receiving payments. If services are covered by insurance, OM practitioners bill the client’s insurance company. Practitioners also must work hard to build their clientele. A career in Oriental medicine requires lifelong learning, and practitioners continually study and increase their knowledge of their field.
Oriental Medicine Practitioner Career Requirements
To prepare yourself for a career as an Oriental medicine practitioner, you need to learn to understand the human body, mind, and spirit. Courses in science, particularly biology, will help you prepare for medical courses ahead. Psychology, philosophy, sociology, and comparative religion classes can help you learn about the mind and spirit. Physical education and sports training will help you prepare for the exercise and massage aspects of Oriental medicine. English, drama, debate, and speech can help you develop the communication skills you will need to relate to your clients and to build your business. Most Oriental medicine practitioners are self-employed, so you will also need business, math, and computer skills.
In the United States, there are presently three defined career paths for Oriental medicine practitioners: acupuncture, Oriental medicine (acupuncture and Chinese herbology), and Oriental bodywork. There are 46 accredited schools in the United States in Oriental medicine and acupuncture. The duration of programs will vary, but most students choose to attend a program at the master’s level. For admission to a master’s level program, almost every school requires at least two years of undergraduate study. Others require a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as science, nursing, or premed. Most Oriental medicine programs provide a thorough education in Western sciences as well as Chinese herbology, acupuncture techniques, and all aspects of traditional Oriental medicine.
Choosing a school for Oriental medicine can be complex. An important consideration is where you want to live and practice. State requirements to practice Oriental medicine vary greatly, so be sure to choose a school that will prepare you to practice in your desired location.
If you plan to apply for federal financial assistance, look for a college accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (http://www.acaom.org/) because these programs are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Oriental bodywork therapy is not taught as a separate discipline in schools of Oriental medicine. To become an Oriental bodywork therapist, you must first meet the requirements of your state to become a massage therapist. Most massage therapy schools require a high school diploma for entrance. Postsecondary or previous study of science, psychology, and business can be helpful. Some schools require a personal interview. Accredited massage schools generally offer a minimum of 500 hours of training, which includes the study of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology (the study of human movement), ethics, and business practices. In addition, the school should provide courses in the theory and practice of massage therapy and supervised hands-on training. For an in-depth discussion of massage therapy, be sure to see the article Massage Therapists.
Once you complete a program in general massage therapy, you can specialize in Oriental bodywork. Some massage schools offer courses in Oriental bodywork. A specialty in Oriental bodywork requires 150 to 500 hours of additional training. The American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia can supply you with information about schools that offer training.
Certification or Licensing
The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) promotes nationally recognized standards for acupuncture and Oriental medicine. In order to qualify to take the NCCAOM exam, students must complete a three-year accredited master’s level or candidate program. Four designations are available: diplomate in oriental medicine, diplomate in acupuncture, diplomate in Chinese herbology, and diplomate in Asian bodywork therapy.
Licensing requirements vary widely from state to state, and they are changing rapidly. Most states use the NCCAOM certification as their standard for licensure. Other states seek certification and additional educational requirements. Check with the licensing board of the state in which you intend to practice.
Individual states regulate Oriental bodywork practitioners as they do general massage therapists. Currently, 36 states and the District of Columbia regulate the practice of massage therapy, requiring licensure, certification, or registration. They generally require completion of a 500-hour program and the National Certification Exam for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. The American Massage Therapy Association can give you information regarding the laws of your state. If your state does not have licensing requirements, check with your county or municipality for regulations governing massage therapy.
Oriental medicine practitioners work with people who may be ill or in pain, so they need to be compassionate and understanding. Listening skills, strong intuition, careful observation, and problem-solving skills are also valuable.
Oriental medicine is a science of understanding energetics in the body, and it is a healing art. Whether you pursue a career as an Oriental bodywork therapist or as an acupuncturist, you need to be successful at understanding and learning this unique approach to health care. Acupuncturists need sensitive hands and keen vision. Oriental bodywork practitioners need strong hands and physical stamina.
Exploring Oriental Medicine Practitioner Career
Study Oriental history and philosophy to help you learn to understand Oriental medicine’s approach to healing. Watch videos, read, or take courses in t’ai qi, kung fu, or other forms of qigong. These ancient methods for achieving control of the mind and body will be part of your studies in Oriental medicine. Health food stores have books on acupuncture, Chinese herbology, and perhaps Oriental bodywork.
Talk with people who have experienced acupuncture, Chinese herbal therapy, or Oriental bodywork therapy. Ask them what it was like and if they were happy with the results of the alternative treatment. You may even want to make an appointment to see an Oriental medicine practitioner. By experiencing acupuncture or massage therapy firsthand, you can better determine if you would like to practice it yourself.
Visit colleges of Oriental medicine or massage schools and ask an admissions counselor if you could sit in on a class. Try to talk to the students after class and ask what they like or dislike about their school, class schedule, or choice in career.
Investigate the national and state professional associations. Many of them are listed at the end of this article and have excellent Web sites. Some associations offer student memberships. See if you can attend a meeting to learn about the current issues in OM and introduce yourself to some of the members. Networking with experienced practitioners can help you learn more about Oriental medicine, find a school, and perhaps even find a job.
More than 22,000 Oriental medicine and acupuncture practitioners are currently employed in the United States. Most Oriental medicine practitioners who specialize in acupuncture, Chinese herbology, or other forms of Oriental medicine operate private practices. Some form or join partnerships with other OM or other alternative health care practitioners. Professionals such as chiropractors, osteopaths, and other licensed physicians increasingly include Oriental medicine practitioners in their practices.
As Oriental medicine and acupuncture become more accepted, there are growing opportunities for practitioners in hospitals and university medical schools. A few are engaged in medical research. They conduct studies on the effectiveness of Oriental medicine in treating various health conditions. There is a growing emphasis on research in acupuncture, and this area is likely to employ more people in the future. A few Oriental medicine practitioners work for government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health.
Oriental bodywork therapists practice in clinics with acupuncturists, other OM practitioners, or other alternative health practitioners. They also work in many of the locations where conventional massage therapists practice, such as conventional doctors’ offices, hotels, spas, cruise ships, fitness centers, nursing homes, and hospitals. Some establish private practices or run their own clinics. A few teach Oriental bodywork in massage schools or in programs that specialize in Oriental bodywork.
When you start out as an Oriental medicine practitioner, one of the most important considerations is having the proper certification and licensing for your geographical area. This is essential because the requirements for the profession and for each state are changing rapidly.
When starting out, acupuncturists sometimes find jobs in clinics with alternative health care practitioners or chiropractors or in wellness centers. This gives them a chance to start practicing in a setting where they can work with and learn from others. Some begin working with more experienced practitioners and then later go into private practice. When starting their new practices, they often keep their full-time jobs and begin their practices part time.
Oriental bodywork therapists may also find work in clinics with chiropractors or other complementary health care practitioners. In addition, they might find job opportunities in local health clubs, spas, nursing homes, hospitals, or wellness centers.
Networking with professionals in local and national organizations is always a good way to learn about job opportunities. Join the organizations that interest you, attend meetings, and get to know people in the field.
Oriental medicine practitioners who specialize in acupuncture or Chinese herbology advance in their careers by establishing their own practices, building large bases of patients, or starting their own clinics. Because they receive referrals from physicians and other alternative health care practitioners, relationships with other members of the medical community are very helpful in building a patient base.
Experienced acupuncturists may teach at a school of Oriental medicine. After much experience, an individual may achieve a supervisory or directorship position in a school. The growing acceptance of acupuncture and Oriental medicine by the American public and the medical community will lead to an increasing need for research in university medical hospitals or government agencies.
For OM practitioners who specialize in Oriental bodywork, advancement can come in the form of promotions within the facility where they work. They can take more advanced courses and pursue a higher degree in Oriental bodywork. They can also become teachers or start their own practice.
Starting pay for a private practitioner specializing in acupuncture and Oriental medicine may be $15,000 to $20,000 until the practice expands. Income is directly related to the number of hours worked and the rate charged per hour, which generally increases with experience. Average income for full-time acupuncturists is $35,000 to $50,000. Experienced Oriental medicine practitioners with well-established practices can net $200,000 or more.
Oriental bodywork therapists’ earnings depend upon the setting in which they work. Those who work with conventional massage therapists may have similar incomes. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, massage therapists’ earnings in 2005 ranged from less than $15,000 for entry level positions, to $32,890 for mid-level, to more than $71,060 for the very experienced. Oriental bodywork therapists who are starting out can charge $40 per hour. Mid-level therapists can charge $65, and very experienced therapists may earn as much as $125 per hour. Most Oriental bodywork sessions last a full hour, so therapists’ incomes are limited by the number of sessions they schedule.
Oriental bodywork therapists work in a variety of settings, and the work environment can vary greatly. In most locations, they work indoors in clean, comfortable surroundings. Solo practitioners may set up their own offices or travel to their clients’ homes or places of business. If they have to travel, they frequently charge a travel fee. They have flexible schedules and can set their own hours. Those who are self-employed must provide their own benefits.
Bodywork therapists who work in doctors’ offices, hospitals, fitness centers, spas, or on cruise ships usually work more regular hours, depending on their employers’ demands. Depending on the employer and their working hours, therapists may receive benefits. Weekend and evening hours may be required to meet the needs of clients.
Oriental medicine practitioners who specialize in acupuncture usually work indoors in clean, quiet, comfortable offices. Since most are in private practice, they define their own surroundings. Private practitioners set their own hours, but many work some evenings or weekends to accommodate their patients’ schedules. They usually work without supervision and, as a result, they must have self-discipline. Acupuncturists who own practices must provide their own insurance, vacation, and retirement benefits.
For acupuncturists who work in clinics, hospitals, universities, and research settings, the surroundings vary. They may work in large hospitals or small colleges. However, wherever they work, health care practitioners need clean, quiet offices. In these larger settings, practitioners need to be team players. They may also need to be able to work well under supervision. Those employed by large organizations usually receive salaries and benefits, but have to follow hours set by their employer.
Oriental Medicine Practitioner Career Outlook
The national emphasis on wellness and natural health care is expected to keep up the demand for Oriental bodywork therapists and other OM practitioners. Interest from the mainstream medical community, recent advances in research, and favorable changes in government policy are strong indicators that the field will continue to expand. As insurance, health maintenance organizations, and other third-party reimbursements increase, Oriental medicine is expected to grow. According to the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Alliance, the number of certified and licensed acupuncturists has nearly tripled in the last decade and should continue to grow as additional states establish legal guidelines.
The number of people who seek Oriental medicine practitioners of acupuncture for their health care needs is growing annually. Oriental medicine is used to relieve a wide range of common ailments, including asthma, high blood pressure, headache, and back pain. Many people turn to Oriental medicine practitioners for internal medicine, oncology, obstetrics/gynecology, pediatrics, urology, geriatrics, sports medicine, immunology, infectious diseases, and psychiatric disorders.
As an important part of Oriental medicine, Oriental bodywork therapy also has a bright future. As more alternative health care practitioners enter practice in response to public demand, positions for Oriental bodywork therapy will increase. Alternative health care practitioners, such as chiropractors and holistic physicians, are good sources of employment and referrals for Oriental bodywork therapists.