What’s different about Medical Herbalists?

Catriona Gibson, Medical Herbalist

What makes a Medical Herbalist distinctive?  What’s their approach to treating people?  Nadine McBay asks Medical Herbalist Catriona Gibson about training and the future of Medical Herbalism.

How would you describe the clinical approach of the Medical Herbalist?

The way I was taught was that there are three elements to working with a patient:  there are the herbs themselves, the advice that you give them, and there’s your relationship with them as well. So a lot of it is about building a positive relationship with a person, helping them to feel comfortable talking about things that they might generally feel a little uncomfortable with and supporting them through the whole process.  Often when people start to take herbal medicine, they’re often going through other changes, such as lifestyle and diet, and this can be challenging for some.

For those with chronic conditions, having an illness for a long time often has effect on people’s lives and outlook in general and how they interact with others, and they need support with this. At the same time, people often come in with something relatively superficial that doesn’t need some sort of life overhaul.  I do herbal first aid, which is very different from seeing patients in the clinic.  It’s usually acute conditions, such as a bad cut, food poisoning or conditions such as ringworm which can be treated in a more symptomatic way.

How long does a herbalist train for and what does the training involve?

Registered practitioners with NIMH – the National Institute of Medical Herbalists – have passed a degree in Herbal Medicine.  There are other herbalist organisations which have different rules, but many of their members will have a degree in herbal medicine too.  There will be people who have practised herbal medicine for decades and originally learnt it as a trade.  They may not have a formal degree in herbal medicine; instead they’ve learnt herbal medicine in a very immersive, vocational way.  This is truer of older generations, but less true now: almost all new herbalists in recent years will have done a degree in herbal medicine.

Depending on whether they’ve studied in England or Scotland, the degree will have lasted 3 or 4 years.  This time is split between the medical side of things and the plant side of things.  The medical side of things will look in depth at a lot of things similar to what a doctor would train in such as anatomy and physiology,  clinical medicine and differential diagnosis, which is how to tell the difference between illnesses which are quite similar to each other and how they manifest in different people.  The plant side of things focuses on dozens and dozens of different herbs that people might use.

When I was studying, we covered about 180 different plants, and still there are ones you come across that you might not have heard about before as there are just so many plants that people around the world use for different things.

For any herbal medicine degree course to be accredited by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH), you must do at least 500 hours of clinic.  This is usually in a student practise clinic supervised by a well experienced herbalist, usually with many years of practise behind them, both in a clinic setting and maybe in other settings too.  So I’ve worked with people who have always been herbalists, people who have been sports physiotherapists, and people who originally qualified as Chinese Medical Herbalists before studying Western herbal medicine. This clinical experience allows the trainee herbalist to work with a variety of people and see how the plants are working for them, all under the supervision of very experienced people.

Sometime in the not too distant future, Medical Herbalists are going to be regulated by the government.  Is this a good or a bad thing?

Many Medical Herbalists see the situation as mixed.  Different herbalists have different views on it.  Day-to-day, I can’t see that many people with notice a big difference to their experience of herbal medicine.  Very basically, it means that anyone who calls themselves a herbalist must be registered with a recognised organisation such as NIMH and that they have done an accredited course.

For herbalists practising today that aren’t yet registered with an organisation such as NIMH, some of them will be able to register, but some of them will not.  That will be a difficulty for some people.  An overall difficulty with it is that there are very few degrees in herbal medicine being offered these days.  There are effectively none left in Scotland.  That for me is quite sad.  It means that there will be no new herbalists graduating in Scotland next year, or the year after, or for the foreseeable future.  So requiring people to have a degree in herbal medicine, but offering no herbal medicine degree courses, is quite a shame for Scotland.  Herbalists in Scotland make up quite a small community as it is.  Still, I’m certainly not against people having more confidence in herbalists and that they are who they say they are.

Once Herbalists are regulated, does that mean that people can be referred to a herbalist by their GP?

It’s all rather unclear at the moment, and we probably won’t have the answers until the new legislation is actually in practise.  There are all sorts of complications because it’s Europe-wide law and countries have different legal systems.  In France, for example, there’s Napoleonic Law, whereas in England, it’s based on English Common Law, and both are very different.  In Scotland, we have a complex mixed legal system, plus we have devolution too – and maybe independence in the future.  So for now, there are simply too many factors pending to hazard a good guess at what may happen.  Watch this space is all I can say for the time being.

Catriona Gibson is a medical herbalist and massage therapist who trained with both the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine and the University of East London. Before becoming a herbalist, Catriona worked for a number of years with people who were homeless and who often had severe, long-standing health problems. Her decision to train as a medical herbalist due to her interest in helping people help themselves and herbalism’s potential to provide a sustainable form of medicine.