AHG Guide to Getting an Herbal Education
Herbal medicine is an emerging field offering many professional opportunities. The challenge for prospective students is to choose the herbal education programs best suited to their personal needs and professional goals. This guide attempts to answer some of the most common questions asked of the AHG regarding "How to get an herbal education." It puts these answers directly in the context of obtaining an education that prepares one for AHG Registered Herbalist, answering another question we commonly receive, "Which herbal educational programs are approved by the AHG?"
How do I choose an herb program?
Herbal training programs vary widely. Ask yourself what sort of education you are looking for-- are you seeking a career in herbalism or are you pursuing herbal medicine as a self-enrichment opportunity? Do you want courses that reflect an interest in clinical applications or are you more interested in research or industry? Are you interested in the traditional lore of herbal medicine, a scientific approach, or a blend of both? Do you want to focus on western botanical medicine, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, or a combination of these, or some other specialty? Can you do on-site learning, or are you seeking a distance-learning option? Answering these questions will help narrow your search significantly.
What types of programs exist?
Programs exist for most styles and disciplines of herbal medicine and range from introductory to advanced, earth-based to scientific, some offering a blend of approaches. There are many well-established programs in TCM, as well as a number of recognized programs in Ayurvedic medicine. There are also a wide variety of programs in western botanical medicine. This pamphlet focuses mostly on planning an herbal education that prepares one as closely as possible for AHG Registered Herbalist.
The following options exist within each discipline and provide varying levels of training.
- Distance-learning options
Programs range from very basic to comprehensive. Some offer periodic on-site intensives but few provide opportunities for significant clinical training. Distance-learning offers many advantages, particularly for adult-learners: decreased educational costs, self-paced schedule, and the ability to remain in your community rather than move to get your education. While distance-learning programs have gained increasing academic credibility, and many programs offer a good foundation in the academics of herbal medicine, they do not provide the clinical hours required for AHG Registered Herbalist.
Other limitations can include lack of inclusion of basic sciences, and no labs when such courses are offered; lack of a rigorous academic structure, and thus an increased potential for there to be gaps in one's education. Distance-learning programs rarely provide a complete program for those seeking AHG Registered Herbalist.
- Short courses
There are many schools that offer 6-8 month on-site programs, meeting anywhere from weekly to monthly (for example, one weekend per month). Most provide a foundational or introductory level of training rather than providing enough training to constitute a sole course of education in clinical herbal medicine. Thus, one may need to take several such programs, or supplement such a program with other learning to meet AHG Educational Guidelines. Some short programs offer increasing levels that may be added to upon the completion of the previous level. Short courses generally do not offer extensive opportunities for clinical training. Also most do not offer not offer preparation in general sciences and laboratory skills.
- Comprehensive on-site courses
There are several programs in the United States, and a number of programs in the United Kingdom that offer a full two to three-year course of study in clinical herbal medicine, frequently meeting all or most of the AHG Educational Guidelines. Many of these programs also offer some degree of on-site clinical training, though not necessarily enough to meet AHG clinical practice requirements for Registered Herbalist. The advantages of on-site training include exposure to many practitioners and teachers, as well as the opportunity to learn in a group setting. The primary disadvantages are cost and limited availability of schools.
Graduating from programs that offer training in western botanical medicine, whether or not they are accredited, does not confer one the right to practice herbal medicine, as there are no states in the United States where clinical herbalists are legally recognized as accepted members of the health care profession.
- Apprenticeship and Independent Scholarship
A carefully crafted plan of self-study (which may include completion of distance learning programs) combined with clinical training with qualified professional herbalists can provide a comprehensive herbal education. This model offers many of the advantages of distance- learning, along with one-on-one clinical training. Disadvantages include limited exposure to the variety of practitioners that one would encounter in a formal school setting, as well as a potential for lack of a comprehensive academic program.
AHG Registered Herbalist has provisions for those who have completed their education through a combination of learning options, including self-study and apprenticeship, however, both independent scholarship and clinical experience must be thoroughly documented for application for AHG Registered Herbalist. The AHG Mentorship Program offers a handbook for documenting apprenticeship training.
Which schools are accredited/approved by the AHG?
The AHG is not an accrediting body, and does not at this time evaluate schools. However, the AHG does offer clear guidelines for core competencies in an herbal education. Carefully examine the curriculum of the programs you are considering and notice whether they meet all, some, or most of the AHG Educational Guidelines or your personal or professional needs. If a single program does not meet some recommendations, you may meet the recommendations by taking other courses elsewhere, pursuing self-study, obtaining a mentor etc.
What are the AHG Educational Guidelines?
AHG Educational Guidelines were developed to provide a framework for individuals and schools seeking to develop a comprehensive botanical medicine educational curriculum. These guidelines recommend the core competencies of herbal education, and are not meant to be either educational requirements or the whole of a complete herbal education. It is expected that individuals and schools will add elective courses to the core competencies outlined below.
A curriculum should have a minimum of 1600 hours of total study, 400 of which should be in actual clinical work. Because many schools do not have clinical supervision courses, you may have to seek to fulfill your clinical requirements elsewhere (see below).
The didactic courses should contain the following:
Basic Human Sciences (200 hrs)
Botany and Plant Identification (60 hrs)
Basic field identification and recognition of plant anatomy; differentiation of commonly used and toxic species.
Materia medica/Therapeutic Herbalism (400 hrs)
To include dosages and dosage forms, historical uses, botanical names, plant constituents, the parts used, therapeutic applications and actions, indications, contraindications and actions, herb-drug interactions, toxicology and side effects, review of the literature, harvestable status, plant families and use with particular groups such as the elderly, pregnant etc.
Pharmacy, Pharmacognosy, and Dispensing (80 hrs)
To include basic principles of medicine making, plant chemistry and pharmacology herbal formulation, modes of administration and delivery, maintaining a dispensary, raw material identification, laws regarding labeling and dispensing, and dispensing strategies.
Clinical Skills (400 hrs)
To include training in counseling skills, professionalism, physical assessments, constitutional analysis, laboratory findings, general assessments, dosing strategies, interviewing and case taking skills, record keeping, wellness counseling, nutritional and dietary counseling, and informed consent and full disclosure.
Career Preparation/Practice Development/Ethics (20 hrs)
To include ethics, maintaining records, professional networking and scope of practice, legal issues (both national and local), confidentiality, small business management, and promoting and marketing an herbal business.
History & Philosophy/Introduction to Research (40 hrs)
History to include the philosophy of western herbalism, the history of American herbalism, and world models of herbalism. Research to include interpreting historical and scientific data, understanding what constitutes "evidence-based medicine."
Which schools have accredited programs, and what is the advantage of that?
An accredited herbal school does not necessarily guarantee a better herbal education than a non-accredited school, nor do its graduate necessarily have professional advantages. The greatest benefits of regional and state accreditation include potential for financial aid and acceptance of credit hours at other educational institutions. An accredited school should state in its literature by whom it is accredited. Professional groups may also provide accreditation for specific professional schools, such as the ACAOM for schools of Chinese medicine. Accreditation by a respected accrediting body does help to insure that the school meets accepted educational standards, has fiscal stability, and that it is operating legally.
Is there financial aid available?
Financial aid comes in many forms, for example, Pell Grants, Guaranteed Student Loans, and educational benefits from military service. These programs are available to schools accredited by bodies recognized by the Federal Department of Education. Individual schools may offer their own financial aid programs, payment plans and work/study options. Some banks and credit unions will help with personal educational loans. Caution should be taken with private agencies offering student loans via the Internet.
What can I expect the cost of an herbal education to be?
Programs vary enormously. Shorter courses tend to be priced as workshops, so you can see what the going rate is for your area. Distance-learning programs range from $400 to $1500. Comprehensive programs can range from $4,000-$14,000 a year for full-time courses, which may require 2-3 years of full-time study. These costs do not reflect additional expenses such as books, supplies, and cost of living. Costs of apprenticeship vary according to the teacher and may range from no fee or work exchange to a formal per hour fee.
How do I gain clinical training?
Clinical training can be obtained in a variety of ways. Some schools offer supervised clinical training as part of the program. Privately arranged mentorships are also possible. The AHG maintains a list of professional herbalists willing to mentor those seeking clinical experience.
What can I do when I graduate from an herb school?
Careers in herbalism include working within the herb industry as an herb buyer, formulator, researcher, consultant, retailer, grower, medicine maker, writer/journalist, or educator. Some herbalists have found positions working in practices with physicians or other practitioners. While there are some opportunities for working in an integrative setting, the practice of herbal "medicine" is not legally recognized in most states. In the current climate even licensed health professionals are at risk if they practice or supervise a practitioner of herbal medicine. Based on a review of salaries published by the AHG, herbalists' incomes range from $20k-$120k. Most practicing herbalists supplement their incomes with a variety of professional activities including teaching, writing, and consulting.
What do I need to know to make a final decision?
Once you've narrowed down your choices, consider the following as you make your final decision:
- Request a sample lesson. Do you like the level and presentation of the materials? Does it meet your educational expectations?
- Speak to recent graduates.
- If it is an on-site school, pay a visit -- travel costs are less of a loss than choosing the wrong program.
- If it is a distance-learning program, how much student-teacher contact is available? Who grades your lessons? How quickly are materials evaluated and returned? How easy is it to reach a teacher for help with lessons?
- Find out what credential is conferred upon completion, and its significance.
- Find out about the qualifications of the teachers.
- Find out about tuition, total costs, and refund policies.
- Find out about grading policies and grievance procedures.
- Be a discriminating consumer.