Alternative Medicine Degrees: Bachelor, Associate & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in an alternative medicine program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of an associate's and bachelor's degree and potential careers.
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Studying Alternative Medicine: Degrees at a Glance

Alternative medicine, also known as holistic health or complementary and alternative health, explores the mind-body connection in relation to health and wellness. Associate's and bachelor's degree programs typically cover a variety of alternative therapies, from history and principles to methods of delivery and practice. Some of these associate's degree programs may fulfill some of the eligibility requirements for professional certification exams, although it depends on the modality, certifying organization and state you live in. Bachelor's degree programs may prepare you for continued professional or graduate-level study or implementation of alternative medical care in concert with your existing professional healthcare career.

There are a number of careers that fall within the umbrella of alternative medicine; career preparation, professional certification and state licensing processes and requirements vary widely by specialty and state. Some career options may also require additional training beyond the associate's or bachelor's degree program. Career options may include body therapist, aromatherapist, lifestyle coach, wellness coach or even fitness instructor. Related careers that typically require additional training include massage therapist, clinical aromatherapist or herbalist, naturopathic physician and nurse. While employment growth rates and related statistics for individual alternative medicine fields isn't collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine reported in 2007 that about 38% of adults used complementary and alternative medicine, an increase of two percent from the agency's 2002 survey (nccam.nih.gov).

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals who want to prepare for careers in body therapy and alternative medicine Those who want to prepare for body therapy and related careers, or graduate or professional school, or working healthcare professionals who want to add alternative medicine modalities to the services they offer
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) Additional training or certification may be required:
- Massage therapist ($40,000)*
- Fitness instructor ($36,000)*
- Acupuncturist (salary unavailable)
- Aromatherapist (salary unavailable)
Career options are similar to those of associate's degree programs
- Chiropractor ($79,000)*
- Family and general practitioner physician ($177,000)*
Time to Completion Two years, full-time Four years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Approximately 60 credits of courses - Approximately 104-123 credits of courses
- Internship or capstone experience
Prerequisites - High school diploma or previous postsecondary education
- Standardized test scores
- High school diploma or GED, or graduation from a college program
Online Availability Yes Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)

Associate's Degree in Alternative Medicine

In an associate's degree program, you'll typically delve into a variety of alternative therapies. For instance, you may study massage, acupuncture, aromatherapy, yoga, reflexology and Oriental medicine. Your program will consist of about 60 credits over 4-5 semesters. These 2-year programs often prepare graduates to set up their own practice in one or more areas of holistic health or for employment in health-related settings such as health and wellness facilities, hospitals or clinics. You may also be able to transfer your credits to a bachelor's program.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Programs may be completed in five semesters or less.
  • Entry-level jobs in the field may be attainable with only an associate's degree.
  • Students may be able to transfer their credits to a bachelor's degree program if they'd like to complete a 4-year degree.

Cons

  • You may still need to fulfill additional education, training or licensing requirements in order to practice a particular career.
  • Some alternative medicine careers are attainable with an apprenticeship instead of a degree program.
  • Some programs may be too broad in scope or too short in length to meet requirements for professional certification.

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Courses and Requirements

Your associate's degree program in holistic health will include both classroom and hands-on training. You'll usually be given opportunities to explore the branches of holistic health that interest you most through elective courses; some programs offer formal areas of specialization in areas such as aromatherapy or herbalism. Some programs may also require that you complete clinical rotations. Others may require that you take business classes in order to prepare for owning your own business. In addition to your general education requirements, courses you may take include:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Stress management
  • Holistic health
  • Holistic health business skills
  • Aromatherapy basics
  • Introduction to herbalism
  • Holistic pathology
  • Massage therapy

Online Info

Hybrid and online degree programs are available; however, fully online programs may lack the opportunity for hands-on training and practice. Some online programs might not meet state or professional association accreditation standards required for you to meet eligibility requirements for professional certification or state licensing.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

To improve your chances of finding a job after earning your associate's degree, consider earning CPR certification while you pursue your degree. Depending on the type of career you choose, CPR certification may be required to earn professional credentials or may be preferred by employers. CPR classes may be completed in less than one day.

While enrolled in an alternative medicine degree program, begin thinking about what kind of career you're interested in and determine what professional certifications may be available or in some states, required. If there are any gaps between your school program and your certification eligibility requirements, you'll be able to address them promptly so that you can qualify to apply for your certification as soon as you can after completing your degree program.

Bachelor's Degree in Alternative Medicine

Bachelor's degree programs in alternative medicine explore different aspects of the field, such as nutrition, herbology, Chinese medicine, meditation and acupuncture. You may also explore chiropractic care, exercise science, massage and yoga. These 4-year programs generally require you to complete 104-123 credits in order to graduate. The emphasis of the degree program may cater to working healthcare professionals such as already-licensed massage therapists, nurses or medical assistants, or to students who seek to continue their education at the professional or graduate level in fields like naturopathy, Oriental medicine, nursing or medicine.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Working healthcare professionals with knowledge of alternative medicine may be better able to meet needs of patients who want to know more about alternative healthcare options.
  • Bachelor's degree programs may offer appropriate preparation for continued graduate-level study.
  • Internships and opportunities to participate in faculty research can provide clinical experience and improve job or continuing education prospects.

Cons

  • Some programs are intended for working healthcare professionals who have already completed a significant amount of education and career preparation.
  • Programs are uncommon and some may require relocation to attend.
  • Graduates may still need to complete additional requirements in order to qualify for professional or graduate study.

Courses and Requirements

Courses in a bachelor's degree program in alternative medicine focus on science and social science topics. Some programs require that you take a capstone course toward the end of your studies, and others require you to complete an internship. Courses that your bachelor's program may offer include:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Nutrition
  • Body awareness
  • Massage
  • Herbal medicine
  • Health psychology
  • Basic chemistry
  • Pharmacology
  • Global healthcare

Online Info

Fully online bachelor's degree programs in alternative medicine are available; however, not all programs are accredited by professional association or organizations, which sometimes matters when it comes to state licensing, if required for your chosen area of practice.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

If you want to be more competitive in the job market after earning your bachelor's degree, you may want to take advantage of internship opportunities while in school. Internships can provide you with valuable work experience and professional references, which may be required when applying to graduate or professional schools.

Other Degrees to Consider

If you're interested in alternative medicine or holistic health and want to educate people on these concepts, you may want to look into earning a degree in health education. Health educators teach people behaviors that they can adopt to stay healthy. Job responsibilities may also include developing programs and educational materials. You may be able to find bachelor's degree programs in health education that offer a concentration option in holistic health. Your core health education courses could include program planning, health education theory, stress reduction, environmental health and epidemiology, while your holistic health courses could include Eastern and Western approaches to the mind-body connection, health and wellness topics.

According to the BLS, employment of health educators was expected to increase 37% between 2010 and 2020, which is considered much faster than average. In May 2011, health educators earned an average of approximately $52,000 per year. The BLS also reported that some employers prefer or require that candidates hold the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential conferred by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Inc. (NCHEC).

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