Although deciding to train for a career in Chinese medicine can be a major step for many people; more often than not, it is the move from student to practitioner that is the biggest step.
Whether you plan to become a practitioner within an established practice, or have ambitions to set up your own clinic; making the first move can be extremely daunting. However, once you've taken the plunge and laid the foundations for a successful business, the work doesn't stop. The skill is in continuing to add the building blocks to grow that business; adapting it and moulding it to meet the needs of your clients and to strengthen, reinforce and firmly establish your place within it.
It takes motivation, hard work and resilience to build a successful business. It also takes a great deal of patience and determination so you need to have a clear vision and understanding of what you are trying to achieve.
THE THREE BUILDING BLOCKS OF SUCCESS
1. DOING THE GROUNDWORK: CHOOSING THE RIGHT COURSE AND GETTING THE RIGHT QUALIFICATIONS
When you are choosing to train in Oriental medicine, the single most important consideration is that of accreditation.
Although some Oriental medicine practices are not yet fully regulated, the sector is moving in this direction. Thus, the quality of your credentials as a practitioner will be a key factor in your future success. Training at a properly accredited college is therefore absolutely crucial.
Oriental medicine courses are available at private colleges and universities with teaching styles varying greatly. Some colleges offer academic as well as professional qualifications and their courses are validated by universities. Many courses teach Five Elements or Traditional Chinese Medicine, but if you are looking for a broad basis from which to build your skills, an eclectic form of teaching that covers the entire range of ‘tools' used in TCM is often a better option.
Once you have decided what type of training you want, visit several colleges to decide whether you like the atmosphere, the facilities and the attitude of staff and lecturers. Check out the class sizes, admission policy, drop-out rates and the qualifications of teaching staff - all staff should speak English fluently. Find out what the courses cover and how they are taught, how much clinical experience you will have access to as part of your training and the proportion of theory-based learning versus practical, hands-on experience.
Your chosen course should give you a solid grounding in both Western and Chinese medicine, including detailed Traditional Chinese Medicine theory and the study of conventional medicine anatomy, physiology and pathology. There should also be a growing focus on actual clinical experience, enabling you to graduate ready to set up in practice.
Finally, you should consider whether you have the financial means to begin re-training and whether you are ready to take this step. Many courses offer greater flexibility for career changers with full- and part-time study options but you will need to think about how you will use your qualifications and how much you will need to earn to make a living. This will help you to plan your future effectively and make the most of whatever course you choose.
2. DRAWING UP THE PLANS: QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD ASK
Whether you are planning to start your own clinic, or join somebody else's, you should ensure that you have a business plan and a vision. By asking yourself some key questions, you will be able to refine your objectives and focus your efforts:
Do I want to run my own practice or work within somebody else's?
Do I want to specialise in a specific condition or set of conditions?
What is unique about my practice or specialist area?
Are there other practitioners in the same location offering the same specialist treatment?
What equipment do I need?
How much money do I need?
How will I market my practice?
Can I get help and marketing support from the location I use?
How many patients do I need to cover my costs?
What will I charge my patients for treatment?
Do I need a website, headed paper, business cards?
3. LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS: WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE YOU SET UP YOUR BUSINESS
Running a successful practice is not solely about how skilled you are at diagnosing illness and treating your patients. You will need to consider your image, the rooms you use, the way you organise your appointments, how you deal with your patients and how you market yourself.
These days, most courses offer some degree of training in how to set up and run a practice. You should ensure that in preparing yourself to build your practice, you understand how to effectively market and promote it, how to understand finance and accounting and how to deal with cancellations or difficult patients.
Along with the knowledge of how to run a practice, you will also need a range of practitioner skills that will help you to support your patients emotionally as well as physically through treatment. Many colleges offer practitioner development training that can help you to apply your skills more effectively within a therapeutic relationship.
HOW DID THEY DO IT?
Becoming a successful practitioner takes time and dedication. We spoke to four practitioners at different stages in their careers to find out how they built their businesses.
BECOMING A PRACTITIONER - THE EARLY STAGES: CLARE CORBETT
27-year old Clare Corbett has just started the third year of her acupuncture course at LCTA. She qualified in Tui Na at the beginning of 2006 and has just begun the Oriental Herbal Medicine post graduate course.
Clare was confident about the business side of her practice due to her accounting and marketing background but decided to build her business very slowly whilst continuing to study. On graduating in Tui Na, she began to practise in the evenings and now has four to five appointments per week.
The process of finding a clinic on the other hand, has been harder than she expected. "Many of the clinics I approached want a practitioner with experience. The six months of practical training in the Teaching Clinic did work in my favour as this was real experience I could offer and I have finally found a clinic where I can practise part-time whilst I continue my studies," she says. "I will be able to incorporate my acupuncture qualification next summer and begin to build my case load."
Clare has decided not to specialise until she has been practising for a while. "I believe that it is important not to limit yourself, rather you should embrace new things and learn from experience," she explains. "It's also important not to take the move from student to practitioner for granted. You need to give it real time and energy and never give up."
ESTABLISHING YOUR PRACTICE - THE NEXT STEP: KYLIE BOX
As an employee in the City of London, Kylie Box was no stranger to the stresses of the workplace. But, having been successfully treated for stress-related headaches, Kylie decided to study for a degree in acupuncture at LCTA and now specialises in treating stress and stress-related conditions in the City.
There are currently only 13 other registered acupuncturists based in the City, none of whom specialises in stress. "City-based workers are an incredibly stressed group of people and there is a huge need for treatments that help with stress," she explains. "Although many people will tell you that they work better under pressure; by managing stress levels you can improve your performance and productivity significantly."
Kylie has continued to work in her old job whilst setting up her practice at Complete Health. She has built her client-base gradually and is now planning to become a full-time practitioner. "Choosing to retrain in acupuncture required major commitment - both of my time and my money - but I am so glad that I did it," she explains. "I have achieved so much since I began the course and I am now building up my practice so that I can make it a full-time career."
THE FINAL TOUCHES - TWO ROUTES TO SUCCESS
Paul Johnson practises acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine and also teaches at LCTA. He originally trained in fine art and was a successful self-employed illustrator and music journalist for 15 years.
Having acupuncture in the early Eighties to treat an elbow injury that had prevented him from working for three months, proved to be a life-changing experience for Paul. He became less stressed and felt calmer and more focused. This profound change led him to make the decision to study acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.
Following graduation, Paul completed a placement at Hangzhou Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in China before setting up his main practice in 2000 at the Oasis Health Clinic in Covent Garden. Within a year of qualifying, he was seeing between thirty and forty patients per week.
Paul is now a director and co-owner of the Clinic and although he is still involved in the business, he only treats patients from his base in Surrey and spends a large proportion of his time teaching at LCTA. "On graduating from LCTA I was approached to help out as an assistant in the Point Location department," he explains. "I hadn't considered teaching, but decided to give it a try and from the first session I was hooked!"
Paul now has a post graduate teaching qualification and has taught at LCTA for six years. He currently teaches part-time on the acupuncture course and is joint-co-ordinator of the postgraduate programme in Oriental Herbal Medicine. "I had no fixed idea about what I wanted to do when I left College, so I was quite happy to be drawn into teaching. It's great to feel part of such a dedicated community - I never expected my new career would be this rewarding.
"The idea of working in a specialist field doesn't appeal to me. Being involved in the learning process, I want to be able to treat all kinds of different conditions," he says. "There is a bizarre Bulgarian proverb - ‘Seize opportunity by the beard for it is bald behind' - that best sums up my advice to qualifying students. Don't be afraid of taking risks when trying something new - there's nothing worse than leaving an opportunity so long that it ceases to exist. Be open to change."
Trevor Wing is a Naturopathic and Oriental Medicine Physician specialising in gynaecology, obstetrics and reproductive health. Originally an Electronics Engineer, he set up a successful medical imaging silicon design company which went public on the London stock exchange leading to a change of career.
"It was time to get out of the high tech industry and I really wanted to help people," he explains. "I decided on Oriental medicine because it is a complete psychosomatic medical system that allows you to treat almost anything - something you can't do by practising Western medicine or osteopathy"
After graduating from LCTA in both Oriental Herbal Medicine and acupuncture, Trevor chose to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology and continued his studies with a postgraduate course in Western reproductive medicine at Oxford and clinical practice in gynaecology at Nanjing Medical University Hospital, China. He also holds an MSc with distinction in Obstetric/Gynaecology Ultrasound and a further postgraduate qualification in naturopathic medicine.
"I chose to specialise and I believe that more students should do so. You can become really skilled when you choose to study in-depth and it is easier to market yourself as a specialist," he explains. "There are many conditions that cannot be treated particularly successfully with Western medicine. In fertility, for example, the success rates of IVF are only 20% to 30% and many of those who don't succeed seek out specialists in complementary medicine."
As well as carrying out doctorate research, Trevor treats patients three days per week in his private clinic and teaches at LCTA in London and colleges in Munich and Oregon. He is also an LCTA Governor.
"Building up a practice is like waiting for a kettle to boil; it takes ages to get going and then all of a sudden it reaches boiling point," he comments. "I set my practice up five years ago and now have a two-month waiting list. When you are successful, your patients will recommend you, but it takes persistence and effort to build up a reputation and reach your goal."
SUPPORT - KEY RESOURCES AND INFORMATION
When looking for a change of career, it is vital to find something that you enjoy. Take your time, research your decision and most of all; talk to people. Go to presentation days, sit in on classes, walk round colleges, talk to students, lecturers and practitioners and try to imagine what it would be like to practise the job of your dreams.
You may also find the following resources useful:
What Colour Is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles is an excellent book which will really help you to work out which career is for you. It has been called "the gold standard of career guides","the enduring job-search Bible,"and has been saluted by The New York Times as a book of "peculiar power". Readers who want practical, cutting-edge job-hunting or career-changing advice,and also want to reshape their lives,will find that this book will make a lasting impression on their life, and the way they view things.
The Web That Has No Weaver by Ted Kaptchuk is the book that almost everyone who is currently practising Chinese medicine read when they first looked at training. It has been around for over 25 years - although rewritten and revised - and still remains the best introductory text for Chinese medicine on the market.
By Susanna Dowie MA, LicAc, MBAcC, HonMRCHM, MATCM
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