Complementary Medicine Practitioner: Educational Requirements

Sep 12, 2019

Complementary medical practitioners provide care to patients whose general health needs cannot be met by physicians alone. Here, we expound on three careers related to complementary medicine: Naturopathic Doctors, Acupuncturists, and Massage Therapists.

Essential Information

Complementary medicine includes a wide variety of modalities which are outside the practice of allopathic medicine, as practiced by medical doctors. It is termed 'complementary' because it is used with allopathic medicine, and not in place of it. Methods may include biofeedback, massage therapy, aromatherapy, homeopathic medicine and acupuncture, among others.

Career Acupuncturist Naturopathic Doctor Massage Therapist
Education Requirements Master's degree Doctor of Naturopathy degree Postsecondary certificate
Additional Requirements State acupuncturist license State ND license Some states require a massage therapy license
Job Growth (2018-2028)* 13% (health diagnosing and treating practitioners, all other) 13% (health diagnosing and treating practitioners, all other) 22%
Median Salary (2018)* $73,960 (health diagnosing and treating practitioners, all other) $73,960 (health diagnosing and treating practitioners, all other) $41,420

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Options

Practitioners of complementary medicine work with holistic methods, or modalities, of health. Depending on the type of complementary medicine, educational requirements range from certificate to doctoral programs. Not all complementary and alternative medicine schools are accredited, and students may benefit from exploring both accreditation and necessary licensing at federal and state levels. Keep reading for an overview of three complementary medicine careers: acupuncturist, naturopathic doctor and massage therapist.


The practice of traditional Chinese medicine, or Oriental medicine, involves both the careful placing of small needles in the surface of the body (known as acupuncture) and the use of herbs, along with other practices such as cupping and body manipulation. This modality is licensed in some states and generally requires one to complete a master's degree program and pass a state licensing test in order to practice.

Traditional Chinese medicine programs generally take four years of training and cover anatomy and physiology, clinical work and practice management. Entry requirements for these master's-level programs include an associate or bachelor's degree and, sometimes, additional coursework. Accreditation of acupuncture schools is granted through the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM).

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) categorizes acupuncturists as health diagnosing and treating practitioners. According to the BLS, health diagnosing and treating practitioners are expected to see a 13% job growth through the 2018-2028 decade. The BLS also reports that the median annual salary for this group was $73,960 in 2015.

Naturopathic Doctor

The training of naturopathic doctors includes a 4-year program, which covers such topics as homeopathy, mind-body medicine and nutrition. Acceptance into a program generally requires a bachelor's degree and may require specific coursework in the sciences, such as biology, chemistry and physics.

Naturopathy is not any single modality; it is a collection of practices that encompass holistic medicine and are underpinned by a belief in a 'vital energy' that is linked to health. Coursework involves understanding current medical practices and scientific biological processes as well as holistic modalities such as herbology, Oriental medicine and mind-body medicine. The Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME) accredits four U.S. schools for training students in the practice of naturopathy; these schools grant a Doctor of Naturopathy (N.D. or N.M.D.) degree. According to the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB), students must take a national examination in order to receive state ND licensing upon graduation.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) categorizes naturopathic doctors as health diagnosing and treating practitioners, all other. These practitioners are predicted to see a 13% growth through the 2018-2028 decade, per BLS. The BLS further reports that the median annual salary for this group was $73,960 in 2018.

Massage Therapist

Therapeutic massage is, at its root, the rubbing of the body for alleviation of stress and pain. Techniques based on Western physiology and Eastern medicine are both incorporated into current practice. Massage therapy training is commonly delivered in a 1-2 year certificate program; a high school diploma or GED is usually required for admission.

Coursework covers massage techniques, anatomy and physiology, business ethics and clinical massage work. Passing the National Certification Examination for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCETMB) allows a practitioner to practice in every state that has licensing requirements.

As reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), massage therapists could see a job growth rate of 22% through the 2018-2028 decade. The BLS further reports that the median annual salary for this profession was $41,420 in 2015.

Complementary medicine in general is growing in popularity, and some primary care physicians even recommend that their patients see naturopathic doctors or acupuncturists for their particular health needs. Massage therapists, in particular, are expected to be in high demand. For all of these careers, proper certification and/or licensure are vital, and it may take time to build a clientele base.

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