Complementary therapies such as acupuncture, Shiatsu and homeopathy were once viewed by the medical establishment as at best ineffective or, at worst, potentially harmful to public health. But seven years since the House of Lords produced its own authoritative analysis of complementary or alternative therapy - concluding that there needed to be clearer regulation arrangements by the various professional bodies - the incorporation of alternative medicine into mainstream healthcare has moved on apace.
Career opportunities in GP surgeries, hospitals, occupational health departments and sport and leisure centres are growing at a "fantastic rate," says Martin Parker-Eames, who heads the BA honours in complementary therapies course at the University of Derby. He believes that both rising public expectations of alternative medicine and the rigorous professional standards now required of therapists themselves are helping attract some of the brightest graduates - the majority of them female - in the country.
Five years ago, the number of university courses offering complementary medicine could be counted on two hands. Today, that number has risen to around 50; with the full panoply of BTec qualifications, foundation degrees, BAs, BScs, Masters and Doctorates on offer at a growing number of campuses.
Many of the courses teach fundamental business and marketing skills and a high proportion of graduates go on to run their own practices. Parker-Eames believes that the expansion of UK study opportunities has been matched by a growing emphasis on hard-nosed scientific research as well as the more "touchy feely" aspects of therapy; a trend that he welcomes: "Students who come to us today are far more critical of the evidence surrounding complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and what it claims to achieve and we take this as a sign of a maturing profession that wants to be taken seriously."
While he believes that many careers advisers are keeping abreast of the rapid growth of career openings in CAM, Maureen Mounty, head of the Department for Health Developments at the University of Greenwich, has doubts. "Although we know of homeopaths who have been working successfully out of GP surgeries for 15 years or more, there is still a belief among many careers advisers that complementary medicine careers are by their nature very limited or niche. The message we need to get across to them is that there has been a dramatic integration of alternative therapy into primary care in the UK in recent years as the medical establishment has recognised the need and demand for it among patients. Now that so many different settings want to use alternative therapists, the career opportunities have become very broad."
Greenwich has been offering a BSc in complementary therapy for more than 12 years now and it remains the only university to allow students to specialise in the new area of stress management. Other Greenwich students here focus either on aromatherapy or take a general therapies route which encompasses a number of different techniques.
Students come from a wide range of educational backgrounds - some straight from school, others already established practitioners needing a theoretical basis to their work - but all of them learn basic skills including anatomy in their first year before choosing a specialist route. Weekly hands-on practice comes via the South Lewisham Health Centre, where students are given free rein to practice what they have learned on real patients.
Although the ratio of aromatherapy/stress management students is currently 70:30 - reflecting the already broad career opportunities for oils-based treatment in primary and secondary care, hospitals, sports and leisure centres and beauty firms - Mounty believes that the career options in the stress management field are opening up: "We have stress management graduates running their own practices or working in GP surgeries, hospices, learning disability centres, police stations, charities and even hotel chains. Large firms such as BP are already offering in-house stress management facilities for staff as part of their occupational therapy portfolios and we believe that other employers will follow suit."
Karine Solloway, 48, had a career in the City before depression forced her to quit her job. In her early 40s, she studied stress management at Greenwich in a bid to understand the "high stress, high speed, high burnout" world she had left behind. Her "life-changing experience" led to an honours degree and to a West End practice where she offers self-hypnosis and hypnotherapy to a wide range of patients including City brokers. "It isn't as lucrative as commodity trading," she says, "but it is all part of my own personal journey and I am very relieved to have made the change."
While Greenwich offers a BSc route to complementary therapy practice and usually demands at least one life science A-level such as biology, the University of Derby offers the more analytical BA route.
"Complementary therapy would once have been seen as a sector served primarily by further education, but more and more courses outside the health/beauty/spa arena are nowadays to be found in higher education settings," says Parker-Eames. "Our BA honours course does of course cover essential areas such as anatomy and physiology, but we are also very keen on looking at the divergent ways of thinking about healing and the essential interpersonal skills required by a therapist.
"Students need academic strength, but they also require a real affinity with complementary medicine and some experience. If a student came to me wanting to study Shiatsu and had never had a massage, I would be a bit sceptical about their commitment."
At the University of Westminster, which has offered CAM courses for over a decade, the 80 per cent female student population in the Department of Complementary Therapies ranges from school and college leavers to highly experienced practitioners already running their own clinics. Last year, all were employed within six months of graduating.
"We have seven different BSc degrees here and a range of full and part-time options to make things as flexible as possible," says head of department Dr Brian Isbell. "Our graduates can go on to earn anything from £20,000 to £30,000 in the community, but up to even £80k if they become successful entrepreneurs. But we always remind them that they need to take care of their own health too. After all, a wounded healer isn't much good to anybody.
"All our courses are BScs because we believe it is vital that practitioners have clinical skills experience and although this can be onerous for some students, we believe it adds to their employability in new areas such as nutriceuticals (nutrition/pharmaceuticals hybrids) as well as in primary care. The professional bodies are becoming very demanding in terms of practitioner skills and we believe that universities should be no less rigorous in raising standards."
SPECIAL FEATURES: 'THE PATIENTS ARE FANTASTIC'
At 24, aromatherapist Emma George, who is registered with the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists (IFPA), already has her own private practice. A graduate of the University of Greenwich - where she gained a BSc Hons in Complementary Therapies - she has recently qualified in Indian head massage and now wants to add reflexology to her repertoire.
"My mum made me aware of the value of massage when I was a teenager so I suppose you could say I grew up in a complementary therapy-friendly environment. Although I didn't have an A-level in biology when I started the course at Greenwich, I learned what I needed during Year 1; when we studied anatomy and physiology in some detail.
"The course was a good mixture of theory and hands-on practice. My dissertation involved a critical review of the available literature on how the use of lavender can affect people's moods and although it was fairly complicated, it helped me to analyse data and questionnaires in a scientific way.
"Looking back on it though, it was the patient-orientation and the practical side of the course that really taught me the most.
"Offering aromatherapy massage, once a week, to cancer patients or people simply suffering from depression or pain was of enormous benefit, particularly as we got the opportunity to work in a genuine GP practice with real doctors and nurses, rather than a university mock-up of a surgery.
"The patients included everyone from teenagers to elderly people, and because they lived in a deprived area of South-east London, very few of them had ever been able to afford a massage or other complementary therapy before.
"They were fantastic people to work with - very open-minded about the benefits and very appreciative.
"Apart from my own practice, where I see people who perhaps have Parkinson's Disease, various eating disorders or depression, I also work in a day hospice; giving massage to cancer patients.
"As a member of IFPA, I am required to keep up to date with new research and trends in order to fulfil my continuous professional development requirements.
"For me, an ideal career would be a really healthy private practice as well as regular work in a hospice or hospital."Reuse content