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Local Opportunities to an Alternative Health Care Career

Chinese lion dancers snaked through the crowds while firecrackers popped outside on the sidewalk. The festivities marked the move of the Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine into plush new quarters in Fremont this spring.

Like many of Northwest’s professional schools specializing in alternative medicine, NIAOM struggled through many years of tiny, cramped classrooms; smaller staffs where one person did the work of three or four; and a definite sense of being on the fringe of the medical profession.

Then, in the late 1990s, alternative medicine blossomed. Media attention, patient demand, and new insurance laws created increased interest in the local schools that had been quietly turning out top alternative medicine professionals for the last decade or more.

While Bastyr University remains the largest and best-known of these schools, students are coming from around the state and country to attend Northwest programs ranging from acupuncture to massage to midwifery.

Many professionals listed in this directory received training from one of the region’s schools. After graduation, they often teach or provide internship opportunities for new students. The schools also help to attract other professionals to the area, drawn by the region’s strong academic base for alternative medicine.

If you’ve been considering a career in alternative medicine, you’re not alone. Living in this region, you have access to some of the best schools in the country. Applications are up at all the local schools. More and more students coming straight out of high school or college are planning to enter the field of alternative medicine.

Massage Training

“Massage has become mainstream enough that people are seeing it as their first career choice right out of high school or college,” said Laurie Levy, continuing education and marketing coordinator for the Brennecke School of Massage.

Brennecke celebrated their 25th anniversary this May. Currently, the school has nearly 200 students ranging in ages from eighteen to their late fifties.

For anyone interested in career in massage, there’s a wide range of schools to choose from in this area. Ashmead College of Massage (formerly Seattle Massage School) has several campuses in the Puget Sound region. Bodymind Academy and the Bellevue Massage School provide training for Eastside students. Brian Utting School of Massage and Brennecke are located near downtown Seattle. There are also a few community colleges offering massage training.

Academic courses at the schools include physiology, anatomy or cadaver anatomy. Students usually train in a variety of massage techniques but may choose to specialize in a particular type of bodywork.

Each school has a slightly different emphasis, and students should explore different options to find the best fit for their needs and interests.

“I always tell people to get a lot of rest before starting school,” says Levy, “because it is going to be much more demanding than you expect.” Although the state only requires 500 hours of training to get a massage therapist license, the Brennecke program lasts 1000 hours.

“If somebody wants to [qualify for a license] as quickly as possible, we might not be a good fit for them,” said Levy.

Once out of school, graduates find a variety of choices open to them as they pursue a career in massage therapy. While many still choose to open a private practice, insurance reimbursement has created more opportunities for those seeking to work in a clinic or established health practice.

Besides researching the schools and potential places for employment, Levy also suggests taking the time to have a few massages before considering a career in the field.

“It’s amazing how many applicants that we see that have never had a massage,” said Levy.


Terry Courtney, the chair for Bastyr University’s acupuncture program, also likes to see applicants that are familiar with the medicine before they start.

“Do as much reading as you can on the subject,” Courtney advises prospective students. “There’s a number of good books out there on the market that explain the concepts in a reader friendly manner. Two that I recommend are the Web That Has No Weaver and Between Heaven and Earth.”

Today, acupuncture is one of the fastest growing fields of alternative medicine. By the year 2000, it is predicted that there will be 20,000 licensed acupuncturists practicing in this country. Despite acupuncture’s widespread popularity, Courtney still sees a significant number of applicants that have never been exposed to the medicine themselves. Like other teachers in the alternative health field, she recommends going to one or two sessions as part of preparing for possible training in this field.

Acupuncturists receive training in much more than just the proper points to insert needles to stimulate qi or energy. In this state, like many others, they are seen as independent health care providers, licensed to diagnose and treat a wide variety of ailments through acupuncture, diet, and herbal therapy. Some work independently in their own practice while others work as part of a larger clinic.

There are three acupuncture schools in or near Seattle. The Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in Fremont was started in 1981. Their three-year masters of acupuncture degree requires students to take classes in acupuncture, traditional Chinese therapeutics and diagnosis as well as the Western clinical science courses such as anatomy, physiology and pathology. Students gain clinical experience through supervised practice at the NIAOM clinic located within the school.

Bastyr University in Bothell also grants a masters degree in acupuncture. Some of their students elect to take this degree while also studying to become naturopathic doctors. Both NIAOM and Bastyr provide standard financial aid for students in terms of Stafford Loans and other government programs.

The third and newest acupuncture school in Seattle was started five years ago. The Seattle Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine is structured differently than the other two programs.

“Technically, you could call us a cognitive apprenticeship program,” said Paul Karsten, the president of the SIAOM. “We believe that students should be within a clinic setting from the first day. Historically, that was the way that all medicine was taught.”

Because SIAOM students spend all their time working as a small group in apprenticeship to practicing acupuncturists, Karsten says that students need to be prepared for a very different scholastic experience than the other two schools.

“We’re looking for folks that can work within small group dynamics,” he said. The school also places a heavy emphasis on Chinese language skills, something not required by the other programs. “We really try to scare people now [during the admissions process]. We tell them horror stories about small groups and learning the Chinese language. So if we accept them and they accept us, they’ve really leaped beyond the minimum requirements to get in.”

Naturopathic Doctor

Probably the best known alternative medicine academic program in Seattle is Bastyr University’s naturopathic doctor degree. As one of only four residential schools in United States granting this degree, the Bastyr program receives applicants from all over the United States and Canada.

The 1999 entering class of 142 students will be the largest class ever in the Bastyr ND program. The ages of the students range from 21 to 58 years old. Although many come out of premed undergraduate programs, the class also includes two medical doctors (MD), several MBAs making a career change, and a commercial airline pilot.

Mindy Hill, Bastyr’s associate director of admissions, has seen the number of applications increase every year. Most years, Bastyr receives far more applications than open spaces for their naturopathic doctor program. “We’ve also seen a larger number of students interested in the ND/Masters of Acupuncture combination,” said Hill.

Currently, eleven states, including Washington, license naturopathic doctors as primary care physicians, and several other states are considering granting a medical license for naturopathic doctors.

While in school, students are expected to study the life sciences and many forms of standard medical practice as well as taking classes in natural therapies. For the final two years of training, they spend most of their time in supervised clinical practice at Bastyr’s clinic located in Wallingford. Bastyr helped establish the King County Medical Clinic in Kent, which provided a mix of standard and natural treatments as a public health clinic.

The university also runs a large research program, where students have an opportunity to participate in research projects ranging from testing the effectiveness of echinacea on the common cold to improving care for the HIV/AIDS community.

Upon graduation, students sit the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Exams (NPLEX) which lasts for several days. The NPLEX serves the same purpose as any medical board exam, testing the student’s proficiency in the skills and knowledge necessary for a physician.

The majority of graduates still enter private practice.

In 1996, Bastyr moved from its original campus in Wallingford to its present location in Bothell. Once a Catholic seminary, the new site boasts expanded classroom space, a dormitory for out-of-town students, and a beautiful wooded grounds near the shores of Lake Washington.


Every first Tuesday of the month, the Seattle School of Midwifery holds an open house for prospective students.

“For anyone interested in this career, that’s the best place to start,” said Therese Charvet, the midwifery program director. “We have five or six faculty members and former students come in and talk about what our programs are like.”

SMS trains women to become independent licensed midwives. Unlike nurse-midwives, licensed midwives, or direct entry midwives as they are sometimes called, train at small, independent schools. Some enter the profession after working as doulas, labor assistants or childbirth educators, while others are inspired by their own experiences with natural childbirth.

“It’s definitely a woman’s profession,” said Chavet, noting that only one male student has ever graduated from SMS. Many students come into midwifery as a second career or after raising their own children. “It’s not unusual for us to have students in their forties.”

As part of the application process, SMS requires prospective students to successfully complete a labor support or doula course. Once accepted, the midwifery program includes four quarters of academic classes emphasizes clinical sciences related to pregnancy, women’s health, and childbirth. Clinical courses (approximately five quarters) are completed in a variety of midwifery practices ranging from one-on-one mentoring to larger healthcare settings.

During clinical courses, the students provide prenatal exams, deliver babies, and give post-natal counseling under the supervision of licensed midwives. Between the classes and clinical work, the SMS program takes a minimum of three years to complete.

“It’s hard work,” said Chavet, “and prospective students need to have the ability to handle that as well as being very flexible in their schedules. They also have to have really good problem solving skills and judgment.”

SMS accepts only a small number of students each year, usually between twelve and fifteen new students.

While most graduates go on to private practice, others have gone into clinics to provide prenatal care. “We’ve had some graduates hired by Fred Hutchinson to work on issues surrounding women’s healthcare,” said Chavet. “Sometimes, it’s a case of carving your own niche out.”

Other Career Opportunites in Alternative Health

While the Puget Sound region boasts a number of alternative medicine schools, some professionals have to seek training outside of this area. The closest chiropractic college, Western States, is located in Portland. The closest osteopathic medical colleges are in California.

Several types of therapies are “service marked” therapies such a Hellerwork or Rolfing, where practitioners must receive training from a specific school or teacher approved to give that training. Professional organizations, like the International Healthcare Educators Alliance (1-800-311-9204), can usually help students track down courses given in their area.

For certain counseling techniques or therapies like hypnosis, professionals can often find classes offered through their national organizations or as independent workshops. Some may last only a weekend; others may take several months or even years to complete. Periodicals in these field, as well as the World Wide Web, can provide more information on training in these areas.

Highline Community College has offered classes in herbalism in the past, but most people in this field receive their education through less formal channels. Like aromatherapists, herbalists usually participate in apprenticeships, attend national conferences, and take workshops to keep up with their field. Internet newsgroups like alt.folklore.herbs can provide excellent resources for tracking down classes close to home as well as learning about some of the better known national workshops and organizations.

When choosing a field of study, all the professionals interviewed for this article emphasized studying areas that interest you and doing as much preliminary research as possible before selecting a school or a career.

“Students really need to think about how they envision themselves as a healer and what really resonates with them,” concluded Karsten.


Rosemary Jones, author of Educational & Career Opportunities in Alternative Medicine (Prima Publishing, 1998) is also the proprietor of Healing Pages Bookstore on Queen Anne in Seattle, Washington.


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