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How to become a therapist

Interested in becoming a complementary therapist? On this page we'll discuss what the job entails, what skills you need to succeed and what training is required.

What does a complementary therapist do?

Alternative and complementary therapy refers to treatments not currently offered within standard health care systems. A complementary therapist is a professional who carries out treatments that can be used as an alternative to, or in conjunction with, conventional medicine. A therapist will look to use their skills to help promote healing, improve health and boost well-being.

A complementary therapist may work to treat a specific ailment (such as backache), or in a more general way (for example, to reduce stress). Many complementary therapists have a holistic approach to health, meaning that they take body, mind and lifestyle into account during treatment.

What complementary therapies are there?

There are many complementary therapies you could specialise in, all with their own approaches and belief systems. Examples include the following:

  • acupuncture
  • aromatherapy
  • Bowen therapy
  • crystal therapy
  • energy healing (such as Reiki)
  • herbalism
  • massage therapy
  • reflexology
  • yoga therapy.

(Take a look at our therapies page to see more examples.)

Holistic therapy

There are some treatments readily available within standard health care systems that are considered holistic. A doctor may prescribe a holistic therapy alone to deal with a certain issue, or it may be recommended to complement other medical treatments. Such therapies include:

  • chiropractic treatment
  • occupational therapy
  • osteopathy
  • physiotherapy
  • sports therapy.

Where do complementary therapists work?

Some complementary therapists work for an employer out of an established practice, but many work for themselves. Those who are freelance may rent a room to practice from or work from home. Some may even offer a mobile service where they travel to clients' homes. 

Could I work within the NHS?

Although complementary therapy is not widely available, the NHS is starting to recognise the potential of these approaches. There are some cases in which patients can be referred to a complementary therapist, for example:

  • If a patient has Parkinson's disease they may be advised to try the Alexander Technique.
  • If a patient suffers from morning sickness, acupressure can be offered.
  • Patients with persistent low back pain may be advised to try acupuncture, osteopathy or chiropractic therapy.

The decision regarding what complementary health care packages are made available to NHS patients is made by NHS organisations/clinicians. Full time positions within the NHS as a complementary therapist are rare. It is more likely that doctors will contact therapists working in the private sector who can also provide services to the NHS part-time.

If you would like the opportunity to accept referrals from NHS GPs, you need to register with the NHS Directory of Complementary and Alternative Practitioners (www.nhsdirectory.org). To register, you must contact the NHS Trust Association that maintains the directory. Once registered, your details will be available to GPs who can then choose to refer patients.

Usually patients referred by GPs are expected to pay for treatment themselves. Sometimes, however, the therapist may be paid directly by the NHS.

What qualifications and skills do I need to become a complementary therapist?

For most complementary therapies, there are no laws to stipulate the level of training required to practice. The therapist training routes and qualification structures will vary according to each therapy.

When looking into how to become a therapist, there are certain skills that can be handy to have. These will vary depending on the therapy you are looking to train in, although it is ideal if you have the following qualities:

  • a desire to help people
  • the ability to put clients at ease
  • excellent listening and communication skills
  • understanding and sensitivity
  • a respect for clients’ privacy
  • commercial skills to help you run a private business.

Once you have completed your therapist training, you may continue your learning with Continuing Professional Development courses (which we will discuss in more detail further down the page). 

Regulated therapies

Some therapies are regulated by law; this means you will need to undertake specific therapist training or become a member of a certain professional body before you can practice. Such regulated therapies include:

Chiropractic treatment

The Chiropractors Act 1994 provides statutory regulation for chiropractic treatment and protects the title 'chiropractor'. The statutory regulator is the General Chiropractic Council (GCC), which was established by parliament to regulate and develop the chiropractic profession.

This means you must be a member of the GCC by law to practice chiropractic treatment in the UK.

Physiotherapy

The title 'physiotherapist' is protected by law. This means that therapists wishing to practice physiotherapy must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). The HCPC is a regulator set up to protect the public by listing professionals who meet their set standards for training, professional skills and behaviour.

Osteopathy

To become an osteopath you must register with the General Osteopathic Council (GOsC). The council works alongside the public and the osteopathic profession to promote patient safety. They do this by setting standards of osteopathic practice and conduct, and only listing those who meet these standards.

Do I need to join a professional body?

Due to the lack of legal regulations in place for complementary therapies, a number of voluntary professional bodies have emerged with the aim of self-regulation. This offers a sense of security to clients looking for a therapist and encourages professionals to reach higher standards of training.

Aside from regulated therapies, there are no legal requirements for a therapist to register with a professional body. Having said this, registering is recommended. Joining a professional body allows you to prove your professionalism to clients and helps you stay up to date with industry techniques and trends.

Each professional body will have different entry requirements and some may ask you to complete Continuing Professional Development. You can find out more about the role of professional bodies on our professional bodies page.

What is Continuing Professional Development (CPD)?

CPD refers to the process of tracking and documenting any additional skills gained after your initial therapist training. Undertaking CPD can help you remain up to date with the latest techniques, rules and regulations of the industry.

Many professional bodies will stipulate in their guidelines that members must carry out CPD in order to retain their membership. For independent therapists, CPD can assure clients that they are continuing to top up their skill set and develop their expertise.

CPD opportunities can either be found through our events for therapists and trainees section, or through professional organisations. It is also worth noting that CPD does cost money, so it is advisable to budget for the expense.

What legal issues do I need to consider?

You will need to arrange insurance to cover public liability and professional indemnity, and also for employees if you intend to hire staff.

Whether you are looking to set yourself up as self-employed, start a partnership or begin a limited company, there are several legal issues to consider.

Familiarising yourself with any legal requirements you may have to fulfil is an important step before you begin practicing. Research whether you need to register with Companies House, what your tax and VAT obligations are and what needs to be done under the PAYE system; this is important if you want to make the most of your business.

Do I need business skills?

For some, practicing complementary therapy may not be a primary source of income; it may be something you do in the evening or weekends because you enjoy it. If you are intending on making a living from your work as a complementary therapist, you will need to develop some commercial skills to help make your business stand out.

If you are a member of a professional body, they may be able to offer some advice. Another useful resource is HM Revenue and Customs, who provide free workshops for those looking to register as self-employed.

There are a number of business skills that you can look to develop. The following are especially important:

1. Marketing

Working for yourself means it is up to you to encourage clients to contact you - and that will require some sort of marketing knowledge. Understanding your target market and understanding the various ways you can promote your services is key.

2. Organisation and planning

Being capable of organising your bookings and managing your time is essential. The system you use to book clients may be incredibly simple at first, but over time you may want to explore more advanced systems or employ someone to help.

3. Financial skills

Keeping accurate financial records is a legal requirement and is essential for the success of your business. You may choose to do your own accounting, but if this is something you don't feel comfortable doing you may want to hire an accountant.

4. Commitment and enthusiasm

Working for yourself and running your own business can be trying at times. Buckets of enthusiasm and a commitment to your work are necessary.

5. Resilience

Being able to handle disappointment and obstacles along the way is an important part of running your own business. Creating a plan of action should something go wrong can offer you peace of mind.

6. Communication skills

Communicating with your clients and any employees you have is something you will need to do on a daily basis, so brushing up on your communication skills is advised. Some may find it helpful to enlist in a computer literacy course so they feel comfortable emailing clients.

What is involved on a daily basis?

Your days will differ depending on a variety of factors, however most complementary therapists will do the following day-to-day:

  • Take bookings - either over the phone or via email.
  • Prepare your practice area for clients.
  • Carry out treatments.
  • Clean/tidy practice area.
  • Follow up with any queries or quote requests.
  • Ensure you have enough supplies/equipment.
  • Any financial administration.

What are the typical working hours?

If you are working from an established practice, your working hours are likely to be set by your employer. If you work for yourself, your working hours can be more flexible. This will depend on how much time you want to put into your business, and what hours work best for you. As many clients will work during the week, it can be helpful to work evenings and weekends.

What fees can a complementary therapist charge?

There is no set fee for complementary therapies, which means you will have to decide how much you will charge yourself. Deciding how much to charge for your services can be a difficult task, especially if you are newly qualified.

Taking the following factors into consideration is advised:

Industry standards - See what other therapists at your level, in your sector are charging.

Location - If there is a high demand for complementary therapies where you live, you may be able to charge more for your services.

Competition - See what your competition are charging. If there are lots of therapists offering the same service nearby, you may find clients are 'over-supplied'. In this case, you may decide to reduce your prices.

Experience - If you are newly qualified you may want to charge lower rates until you build up some experience. The more years of experience you have, the more able you are to charge higher rates.

Complementary therapist fees can range from £20-30 per session up to the hundreds. Many therapists offer initial consultations at a discounted price and some provide offers for bulk bookings.

Useful resources

If you want to learn more about how to become a therapist, the following websites may be useful:

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