Industry or Profession … Which are we?

Cooperative professionals

I often hear people refer to the disciplines of naturopathy and herbal medicine as an “industry”, and I have to say it grates on me every time. Why? Because we are a profession, not an industry.

What is an Industry?

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English an “industry” is …

“economic activity concerned with the processing of raw materials and manufacture of goods in factories”

“a particular form or branch of economic or commercial activity”

As applied to the complementary and alternative medicine field, this essentially means the manufacture and sale of therapeutic goods.

What is a Profession?

Again according to the Oxford Dictionary of English a “profession” is …

“a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification”

An even more comprehensive definition dates back to an article written by Sidney and Beatrice Webb and published in the New Statesman in April 1917, which states …

“A profession is a vocation founded upon specialised educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested* counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain.”

*i.e. objective and without vested interest

Why the confusion?

In many ways the introduction and prolonged existence of the Advanced Diploma has stilted the development of naturopathy and herbal medicine in Australia, forcing our education to stay within a vocational framework. As discussed in previous posts, this framework and qualification level is not designed to train professionals, but is definitely more suitable to training individuals to work within an industry. Yet the needs of the public, and the aspirations of various individual pioneers and professional associations, have led to standards of education and ethics which are beyond Advanced Diploma level, and which attempt to prepare graduates for true professional work. Thus we have existed in this grey area between an industry and a profession, struggling to define ourselves effectively in the context of the totality of health care options available to Australians.

However we are now at a turning point. We are beginning a new stage of development where a Bachelor degree will be the new entry-level qualification. Our professional associations have grown, and a number of them support a move from pure self-regulation to either co-regulation or true registration. These are all steps that disciplines take as they solidify themselves as true professions.

Why the need for distinction?

After more than 20 years of experience in herbal medicine and naturopathy, I have seen what can happen when we perceive ourselves as, and behave like, professionals. I have seen the respect granted to us by other health care professionals. I have seen the benefit when that mutal respect leads to effective cooperation in the care of a patient.

But I have also seen what happens when the public, health professionals, and governments, see us as little more than glorified health food store attendants, with qualifications which are designed to produce “para-professionals” instead of professionals, with limited career opportunities, and precious little professional accountability or limitations on the practice of fringe-dwellers which give naturopathy and herbal medicine a bad name.

Naturopathy and herbal medicine is more than just health food stores and companies which supply therapeutic goods. We have a rich history, strong philosophical underpinning, and a powerful system of health care at our disposal. But whilst we ourselves remain confused about whether we are an industry or profession, how can we move forward?

Whilst it is important to remember that the profession and the industry coexist and indeed need each other, it is also important to remember the differences. As practitioners we should not be motivated by the sale of product, and personally I believe that our income should not be driven by this. It can be argued that generating more income from selling product than from professional services creates an ethical slippery slope, whereby we might prescribe based upon a company’s promotion of a product, or worse still, by what provides us the greatest markup and financial incentive.

I’m not advocating that herbalists and naturopaths stop selling medicines altogether, but I am promoting the idea that we think about who we are, what we stand for, and the ethical and professional rationale behind our practices. And that we consider ourselves as part of a profession, and not part of an industry.


Image from Andresr/Shutterstock


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Copyright Ian Breakspear, 2014