How to start up a Chinese herbalist practice

Traditional Chinese medicine is becoming more accepted in the UK as people seek out alternatives to conventional treatments. Read our in-depth practical guide to starting up and running your own herbal medicine practice.

Research your target market

Estimating demand

It's very important to find out whether there is enough demand for a Chinese herbalist in your area. Remember that complementary therapies - including herbal medicine - are available from a number of different sources and you will be competing against:

  • other herbalists, both Chinese (including Kanpo) and Western
  • acupuncture practitioners who also offer Chinese herbal medicine
  • practitioners of Ayurvedic and Tibetan Herbal Medicine

You may also be competing against many other therapists offering a range of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies such as aromatherapy, homeopathy or reflexology. Patients can also buy Chinese herbal remedies online or from specialist retail outlets. A look on Yell.com for your area will give you an indication of the number of Chinese herbalists and other complementary therapists that are already practising in your area.

It may be that you will only be competing directly against some of these practitioners because you will be offering very specialised treatments. For example, you might concentrate on helping people with skin disorders such as psoriasis, eczema or acne.

Have a good look at existing Chinese herbal medicine practitioners to establish:

  • whether or not they specialise
  • how much they charge
  • how professional they are - at present anyone can set themselves up as a herbalist but reputable practitioners belong to the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM) or the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture (ATCM) and comply with Codes of Ethics and Good Practice
  • whether the consulting rooms are hygienic and smart
  • whether they offer any other therapies

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Patient profile

Your market

Chinese herbal medicine is used to treat a wide range of disorders so you are likely to treat patients of all ages and backgrounds, including children. Because most patients have to pay for their treatment themselves you are likely to find that professional people make up the majority of your patient base. It still seems to be the case that more women than men turn to herbal remedies, although this is changing.

Consultations

The initial consultation with the patient is likely to last for at least one hour. The practitioner asks the patient a number of questions about their health and that of their family, their lifestyle, diet and body functions. The practitioner will examine the patient's appearance and tongue as well as taking a number of 'pulses' and smelling the patient to help with the diagnosis. When the practitioner has decided on the best course of treatment for the problem, he or she prescribes a number of herbs for the patient to take. These are often boiled up to make a herbal 'tea'. The patient is given enough herbs for one or two weeks and a follow-up consultation is booked. This is normally shorter than the initial consultation - say, around half an hour - and the practitioner will see what progress the patient has made. If necessary, different herbs will be prescribed.

Generally a course of treatment involves taking the herbs for a number of weeks with a consultation every fortnight or so. Once the patient's condition has begun to respond the tailored herbal prescription might be stopped and ready-made licensed herbal tablets prescribed instead. No further appointments might be necessary.

Some Chinese herbalists do not speak English fluently and prefer to use an interpreter so that they are certain that the patient has understood everything during the consultation. It is also important to make sure that the patient understands how to prepare and use the herbs correctly.

You might decide to offer flexible opening hours - such as in the evenings and at weekends - to cater for patients who can't visit you during the working day. You may also think it would be worth offering home visits to patients with mobility problems.

Special offers and discounts

You may decide to keep your fees as low as possible for certain patients, such as pensioners or children. You might also be prepared to reduce the fee per consultation if the treatment you have decided on will be lengthy and take several consultations.

Complementary and alternative medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) covers a large number of different therapies, which work holistically by balancing a patient's physical, emotional and spiritual state. The most established disciplines are acupuncture, herbalism, homeopathy, chiropractic and osteopathy, although there are many others. A study published in 2007 estimated that nearly half of the UK population can be expected to use at least one CAM therapy in their lifetime. You might decide to offer several therapies in addition to Chinese herbal medicine - you may have the training and expertise to offer these yourself or you may engage the services of other practitioners. A brief description of some CAM therapies is included below:

Chinese herbal medicine

Chinese herbal medicine is one aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which also includes acupuncture, massage and the exercise technique known as Qigong. Herbal remedies are prescribed to correct 'patterns of disharmony' in the patient's body. Usually a number of herbs are prescribed, each of which has a different property. Herbal formulas can be taken in a number of ways, such as boiled up to make a 'tea', or as tablets, powders, lotions, creams, ointments or tinctures. Herbal medicine can be used to treat a very wide range of conditions and disorders such as skin problems, gastro-intestinal disorders, heart and circulation conditions, arthritis, respiratory disorders, stress and psychological problems and much more.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture originated in China some 3,000 years ago and involves inserting very fine stainless steel needles into particular points on the body to stimulate nerve impulses. Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the concept of vital energy (or qi) which flows around the body along invisible channels (or meridians). Well being is achieved by regulating the flow of energy and correcting any imbalances by inserting the needles at specific points on the body. Akabani sticks may be used on fingers and toes to test whether or not the flow of qi is symmetric. Dried mugwort or moxa may be used to heat the needle, to reduce or increase the flow of energy. Western acupuncture uses the same needling techniques but affects nerve impulses and the central nervous system. Acupuncture is used to treat a wide range of ailments and conditions, including back and neck pain, osteo-arthritis, allergies, pain relief and smoking cessation.

Osteopathy

Osteopathy is a system of diagnosis and treatment, primarily for musculo-skeletal problems. Treatment consists of manipulation to correct the underlying causes of the pain - this may include massage, stretching and other exercises.

Chiropractic

Chiropractic treats musculo-skeletal disorders by manipulating and massaging the muscles, joints and ligaments of the body to put right any dysfunction of the spine and pelvis.

Homeopathy

Homeopathic treatment uses very small doses of substances that, if taken in high doses by a healthy person, would produce the symptoms that the remedies are designed to treat. It is based on treating 'like with like'.

Other complementary therapies include:

  • aromatherapy
  • hypnotherapy
  • Alexander technique
  • reflexology
  • Shiatsu massage
  • yoga
  • healing
  • naturopathy
  • meditation
  • nutritional medicine

and many others.

Pricing policy

How will you decide on your consultation fees and herbal remedy prices?

Getting your pricing right is very important. You must make sure that your fees and the price you charge for your herbs are high enough to cover all of your operating costs, including your own drawings. But it's also important to make sure that your prices are in line with the prices charged by any competitors you may have.

Typical fees might be as follows:

  • initial consultation and diagnosis - £30 to £75 (sessions might last for one and a half hours)
  • follow-up sessions - £20 to £50 (sessions typically last for between 30 and 45 minutes)

If you make home visits you'll need to make an extra charge to cover your travelling time and fuel and motoring costs. For example you might charge £75 for an initial consultation and diagnosis in your premises, but £100 if you travel to your patient's home.

The cost of the herbs you prescribe will vary, depending on the nature of the patient's condition, but as a rough guide you might charge them between £12 and £30 for a week's supply. Think about how much you will add on to the cost to you of the herbs you prescribe. You might also make a charge for repeat prescriptions, for example £2.00.

You might decide to offer a discount if a patient books a number of sessions - say, four or six after the initial consultation. Some practitioners offer a discount for children.

If you plan to regularly offer a discount from your normal fee tariff it's a good idea to keep comprehensive details of this - it will be helpful if HM Revenue & Customs ever investigate your business.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing farm supply business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the products, customers, regular sales, staff, premises and equipment are already in place.

But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

Other matters to consider include:

  • the condition and value of any stock of herbs you are buying. Check this over carefully before agreeing a price. Make sure they are obtained from a reputable source and that they are good quality. Remember that herbal medicines must have a traditional herbal medicines registration (THR), or be licensed as a medicine under a marketing authorisation. Otherwise you can only use them where you're preparing them for a specific patient after a one-to-one consultation. You can see a list of herbal medicines that have a THR on the Gov.uk website

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