Acupuncture Safety, and, a Matter of Fairness

Protecting the public safety is a good reason for regulation.

People have been injured by PT’s or Chiropractors doing dry needling.  When we see a story about that we share it. So I understand the comments on the previous post.

And, there were two recent threads on Facebook that caught my attention.

An LAc posted a question about whether it was possible to cause an infection by needling CO4. He’d treated a patient who later developed redness at the area. The patient visited an MD and was prescribed an antibiotic. I was surprised at the practitioner’s question, and surprised and mortified at the responses.  Which included: The MD is just trying to cover his ass, they just like to prescribe antibiotics, not if you used sterile needles, not if you used an alcohol swab on the area first, people freak out all the time, etc. A day or two later, the initial questioner reported that the patient was now hospitalized with a staph infection.

Another LAc wrote that a patient reported she’d had a pneumothorax from a treatment and was now asking for financial compensation for a portion of the medical expenses and several weeks of missed work. What should the practitioner do? Of course, getting some documentation makes sense, but the responses also included: if it really happened why doesn’t the patient have a lawyer, if you’d given her a pneumothorax you would have known it immediately, she must have had some sort of underlying medical condition so you aren’t responsible, etc.

Personally, I know some amazing practitioners who have firsthand experience with pneumothorax(i?) on both ends of the needle.

I don’t believe we have sufficient record keeping to know the relative safety records.  Dry Needling does involve a deep and aggressive needle technique and so is more likely to do damage.  That’s true even with an LAc holding the needle.

When a story comes out that involves harm done by an LAc, we make all sorts of excuses and focus on our generally good safety record. When we find out about damage done by a PT or DC, we trumpet the news, and make smug and superior comments.

When it comes to fairness, most of the things I hear LAcs complaining about are either self-inflicted or, sometimes, imagined.  The length of our training — we’ve been behind the increase. The differing insurance reimbursement — is that insurance thing working out for anyone?

This post is mostly blogger’s prerogative to give what is really a comment on the previous thread a higher visibility.  I won’t make a habit of it.  But hwds’ are one of my pet peeves — that’s hypocrites with double standards, and when our response to what happens at the pointy end of the needle seems to vary so much depending on who is at the handle, I think that term applies.

 

 

Court Ruling will Impact Acupuncture Boards

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners violated federal law when it tried to prevent non-dentists from offering teeth whitening services.

What does this have to do with acupuncture?

The ruling has the potential to impact all professional regulatory boards.  I’m travelling and don’t have time or an internet connection sufficient to do a thorough report. I encourage you to click through and read the links below — I think most of you will be able to come up with a few areas where LAcs have been sounding an awful lot like those NC dentists….

No anti-trust immunity for Professional Licensing Boards

Dentists Unfair to Competitors

Dentists can’t decide who whitens your teeth

State Licensing Boards not Protected

Board Prevented from Limiting Competition

As Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said

“state boards composed mostly of active market participants run the risk of self-dealing.

“This conclusion does not question the good faith of state officers but rather is an assessment of the structural risk of market participants’ confusing their own interests with the state’s policy goals,” he said.

 

Many LAcs insist the only reason they want to stop PT’s and DC’s from doing Dry Needling is concern for the public. Could they be confused?

 

 

It was Twenty Years Ago Today

….. that I was granted my Virginia Acupuncture License (#4). I’d been licensed in Maryland for a few months, but the Virginia License was special. Throughout my years of acupuncture school I’d been involved with the Acupuncture Society of Virginia, working to establish a practice act. We were finally successful in 1994, and my documents were ready and waiting when the regulations were promulgated.

I’m happy I found this wonderful medicine when I did. I feel lucky to be doing this work, and look forward to continuing to practice for decades to come. And yet, these days, I’m mostly sad about the acupuncture profession.

Back in the day, when only MD’s could do acupuncture in Virginia, we argued that the public should have the right and the ability to choose their provider.

We discussed how our medicine could treat the whole person, and that treatments were uniquely tailored to the individual.  We didn’t see patients as a collection of ailments, to be sent from one specialist to the next.

We talked about the good value of our medicine and our belief that it could reduce health care spending.

We got used to the medicine being dismissed by the medical establishment, but held out hope that, some day, they would see the value of what we did.

We knew that this medicine would require lifelong study and learning, but experience told us that about 1500 hours of training was sufficient to produce competent practitioners.

We were happy when we were finally able to receive student loans to attend acupuncture school.

We had concerns about relying on one standardized exam as a precursor to licensure, especially one that was based primarily on one tradition. But we knew that it would relieve some of the burden on the states, and so might help with national acceptance.

It was a time of promise.

Now, my Facebook feed is full of rants — we’ve now decided that, just as the MD’s wanted to protect the public from us, we now must protect the public from the PT’s.

Rather than celebrating the professionals who see the value in this medicine and want to offer it to their clients, we scream that they are stealing our medicine and must be stopped.

We’ve justified our increasing fees (after all, if the MD’s deserve it, we deserve it), and, then chased the insurance dollar so that our patients can afford our services. We’ve adopted the billing games that come along with that, fudging fees, adding services, figuring out what diagnoses to use to get reimbursement, and expressing outrage when we’re called on our behavior. Some of us have gone so far as to attack those who have designed a system to make acupuncture truly affordable to the majority of the population.

We decided that more education would get us more respect, and so increased and increased, and increased again the hours required for entering the profession.  The number and complexity and cost of the exams increased. In a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, practitioners in some states decided an acupuncture education was not enough.  Acupuncturists now must also learn and be tested on herbal medicine, whether they want to use it or not. Various states added additional requirements, so any relocation runs the risk of shutting a practitioner out of the profession. The student loans we celebrated enabled schools to ignore the disconnect between the cost of the education and the likely income of graduates.

I could go on. I won’t.

Shaking my head at the missteps we’ve made, I comfort myself with the confidence that the medicine will survive, even if the profession won’t. Happy Anniversary.

 

 

 

A Little Humor

Here in the DC area a few bulbs are sending leaves up through the cold ground. As their energy rises so does mine. Soon, I’ll share my response to ACAOM’s latest communication and news that yet another jurisdiction seems poised to put licensure off-limits for those without full NCCAOM herb credentials. (DC. Once again, this is happening out of sight of most US practitioners. Shouldn’t we be care more about this than what the PT’s are doing?)

But, for today, I decided to share a humorous bit that I posted to Acupuncturists on Facebook the other day. For those who, understandably, avoid that group, enjoy. For those whole already saw it, apologies.

The Six Stages of Cold Induced Illness in LAcs –

1) Dignity — I’ve been so healthy this year! I do lots of Qi Gong and eat right and get good sleep and take Jade Screen. Don’t worry about me, I’m great.

2) Denial — Hmm, the air in the house must be dry. Or maybe I’m allergic to something. I’m fine.

3) Dosing — Echinacea, Ginger Tea, Chicken Soup/Bone Broth, Jing Fang Bai Du San. More tea. I’ll throw in some Airborne. And some Yin Chiao.

4) Delusion — Really, I’m fine. Let me step out for another box of needles (copious nose blowing and repeated handwashing). Oh, yes, just a little sniffle, it’s nothing.

5) Decompensation — My nose is dripping, can I get the needle in before it’s too late. How many clients do I still have today — can someone please be a no-show. Why is everyone on time? Oh, can I put my head on my desk for a minute. Do I have any Sudafed around here?

6) Despair — This is ridiculous, I surrender. Begin the phone calls to clear the day tomorrow. Of course I’ve had two good weeks in a row for a change — where can I put these folks. :-(

I hope that all of you are well and healthy. Enjoy these last weeks of hibernation.

An Acupuncturist Looks for Balance

How do I help the greatest number of people?

The wisdom of Acupuncture/East Asian Medicine has improved my health and the health of my clients for more than two decades. Throughout that time I’ve worked with professional regulation, legislation, and our organizations, with the goal of increasing public access to the full benefits of this medicine.

My involvement in the political sphere of our profession has taken significant qi that I could have used to study the medicine, improve my technical skills, and increase my own well being.  Most days at my clinic include at least one moment when I know that with deeper study I could have provided better care.

This fall I felt that I should choose, Practitioner or Advocate? My clients weren’t getting my best. Could I find a way to support myself through advocacy and leave my practice? Would I be happier if I focused on the intellectual challenge of working toward a widely shared vision of success for the profession, and developing a path to that success? Or should I leave the advocacy work and focus on my patients? In the clinic the appreciation doesn’t carry a side order of harassment and ill will. When I treat I see the positive impact of acupuncture and Asian medicine every day.

It’s winter. I’ve been taking a break. I can’t quite follow the Nei Ching and sleep until the sun rises, but I’ve stepped back. I’ve read the communications from ACAOM and the AAAOM (and this, and this (apologies for it being post-deadline, it was hidden), followed the complaints about health insurance (what it costs, what it covers, what it pays, the work involved in getting those payments), wondered about our dry needling strategy, and pondered whether blogging about these things is “worth” the qi.

It’s still winter….

 

 

 

 

17 Foundational Beliefs of The Acupuncture Observer

Embracing the season of gratitude and thanks, it’s time for The Acupuncture Observer to take a step back and share some of her foundational beliefs about the medicine, the profession, and life.

  1. Acupuncture/OM works. The unique situation of the patient and the unique skills of the provider influence effectiveness. No single tradition provides all of the answers or benefits.
  2. Acupuncture/OM has fewer negative side effects and risks than conventional treatment for many conditions.
  3. Access is a necessary precursor to effective treatment.
  4. Effective treatment will increase wellbeing and could decrease health care costs.
  5. Every means to increase access carries trade-offs. Those trade-offs must be understood as we determine our path forward. We should learn from the experiences of other professions.
  6. Understanding and explaining the mechanism of acupuncture from the knowledge base of modern biology and physiology is useful and interesting, but is not necessary for acceptance by the medical establishment.
  7. The current “science-based” understanding of health is known to be limited. Insisting that Acupuncture/OM be taught, thought of, or explored only in the language of modern medicine/science is unscientific and risks centuries of experience and wisdom.
  8. Consumers should have significant freedom of choice in health care. Understandable and clear information about potential benefits and risks, as well as an exploration of the costs (financial and otherwise) is necessary for good decision-making.
  9. Self-serving thinking leads to hypocrisy. Special attention is needed when an argument for patient protection creates an economic benefit for particular providers.
  10. Simple, easily learned treatments can be effective and safe.
  11. There is the potential for growth and success within the acupuncture/OM profession.
  12. Many acupuncture programs do not provide sufficient or accurate information about post-graduation life and do a poor job of teaching business skills. This can be changed easily and inexpensively.
  13. The financial and karmic ROI (Return on Investment) of positively promoting our profession is superior to that of engaging in political/regulatory battles with others.
  14. The future of the medicine and of the profession are interconnected but not identical.
  15. Thoughtful and respectful analysis can identify areas of common ground.
  16. Focusing on areas of common ground decreases factionalism, and builds unity, understanding, and participation.
  17. The profession lacks venues for respectful dialogue on these issues. As a result, many scholars and potential leaders within the profession avoid involvement.

Do we agree on some of these? Can respectful dialogue increase the areas of agreement? What if we read the Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, and The Art of War first? What if we go deeper than our Wei level response to some of these issues? I believe it is possible that we’ll be able to find a new path forward, one we can walk together, with our hair flowing free. After all, I’m an acupuncturist.

More on Acupuncture Education

The for-profit schools don’t want to take responsibility for the circumstances of their graduates. And they won’t let the new gainful employment regulations go into effect without a fight.  Within days of the posting they filed suit to block the regulations. They did the same thing when similar regulations were announced in 2012, so I expect the DOE wrote the new regulations carefully to withstand an expected legal challenge.

However, with a pro-business and anti-regulation majority in the House and Senate as a result of last week’s election, even regulations found to be legal might not be enforced.  If the funds to track compliance aren’t in the budget, for instance, enforcement can’t happen.

Of course, if the schools and alphabets were committed to doing the right thing — producing the best possible graduates at the lowest possible cost to the students, regulations wouldn’t be needed, and wouldn’t threaten the schools even if they were adopted. I don’t expect that commitment from large businesses like Corinthian. I wish I could expect it from acupuncture schools. But most acupuncture schools seem to have little interest in what happens to their grads, and continue to present an unrealistic picture of life after graduation to potential students.

We’ve gotten to the point where even prominent conservatives acknowledge that the current system is a “bad deal for students and parents” and at least some are advocating for change. And it’s true that regulations, however carefully written, often have unintended negative consequences. All too often the well-off and powerful find ways to exploit loopholes and other tricks to avoid regulation, while smaller businesses find themselves significantly disadvantaged. (Consider what happened with the organic label.)

If the schools were on the hook for the money students borrowed no doubt things would be a lot different — from materials provided to prospective students, to the admissions process, to the education provided, to alumni support.

I don’t expect that will happen. And with the change in the political picture here in the US, who knows what will happen with the gainful employment regulations. For now, all acupuncturists can help the market work by helping prospective acupuncturists look past the pitch. Anyone entering the profession should do so with eyes wide open.

(Read this for more on how the November elections will impact the future of acupuncture and complementary medicine in the US.)

Gainful Employment and Strategic Errors

The Gainful Employment final regulations have been announced. Forgive my commenting prior to a complete and thorough analysis of the 941 page document. (You can see some analysis here.) The gist is that for-profit schools (which includes half of US acupuncture programs) will soon have to show that graduates’ student loan payments are manageable with the profession’s available employment (not taking IBR into account). If they can’t, federally guaranteed student loans will no longer be available.

Why should taxpayers continue to provide loans for educations that history shows aren’t worth the investment? Imagine tuition rates and post-graduate employment assistance if the schools provided and guaranteed loans, and took the hit if they weren’t paid back in a timely fashion.

It is no surprise that for-profit schools are displeased about the impending end of the gravy train. Many for-profit schools, and their related organizations, did everything they could to block the regulations. And, just under the wire, the acu-educational establishment contributed comments.

(The more expensive FPD, and pressure away from “acupuncture-only” degrees now carry a significant downside for the schools.)

Did ACAOM think their letter might exempt them from the rules or impact the final regulations? It seems unlikely that this little community would shift the tide. It was an unforced error for ACAOM to write a letter that reveals such little concern for graduates and such a strong desire to dodge responsibility. (Some of the more significant issues in ACAOM’s letter are discussed here.)

But our own strategic errors have allowed ACAOM and other other alphabets to disregard our well-being.

The petition that asked the alphabets to stop denying their role in our circumstances received 227 signatures. Petitions to stop dry needling often receive thousands of signatures. Which is more likely to limit professional success — a school that leaves students with extensive debt, poor business skills, and no job placement or alumni support, or a little competition? If we can’t survive the competition from those “untrained” professionals our education is surely lacking.

The Feds and the taxpayers pay a price when schools sell an education for far more than it is worth. We graduates pay a far more personal price. It’s too late for us, but at least the Feds are willing to look out for the interests of those who will follow in our footsteps.

Positive Developments for the U.S. Acupuncture Profession

Volume 1, No. 1 of Meridians: The Journal of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine hit my mailbox last week.  It’s difficult to keep up with my “reading pile,” but knowing that Jennifer Stone and Lynn Eder were involved was a great incentive.

Though my time at the AAAOM was “nasty, brutish, and short” I did meet some great people there. Jennifer, who was editor-in-chief of The American Acupuncturist, and associate editor Lynn were among them.  Their work was top-notch and when I saw that they were part of the exodus from the AAAOM I feared their skills would be lost to the profession. Luckily, the new endeavor is off to a great start.

My favorite section was “Clinical Pearls”, focusing on Frozen Shoulder this issue. (Submissions on How to Treat Blocked Menses (Secondary Amenorrhea) will be accepted until November 15.)  I was so glad to see a focus on acupuncture treatments rather than herbal remedies. The growing (damaging and disturbing) trend in the profession to restrict practice to those with full herbal credentials demands frequent reminders that needling points is an incredibly effective stand-alone treatment. Thanks, Dylan Jawahir, Clinical Pearls Editor.

I also appreciated Jennifer Stone’s piece on postherpetic neuralgia. I’ll give the protocol a try the next time I’m confronted with a case that does not respond to my usual treatment choices. Again, simple needling can have great results.

My state association membership includes online access to MeridiansJAOM, which is a great perk. Still, ongoing survival of the journal will depend on subscribers and I hope that many of us will step up, subscribe, and support its advertisers. Subscription rates are very reasonable.

I have just one gentle request for Jennifer — can we have a more eye-friendly font? The footnotes were almost impossible for me, and even the main text required good lighting and rested eyes.

Another bit of good news last week — the launch of the Acupuncture Now Foundation. I’m often frustrated that so much of our profession’s energy and money goes to fighting with other professions, increasing our own licensure and educational requirements, and fighting to participate in a broken medical system. Meanwhile, helping the public understand the benefits of our medicine doesn’t seem to be a priority for many of our professional organizations.

Just as Matt Bauer’s Making Acupuncture Pay book and website have helped new practitioners by filling the gaps left by many of our acupuncture schools, the Acupuncture Now Foundation promises to do the public outreach work often given short shrift by our organizations. I hope that Matt gets the support he needs to finally do the work that has been his vision for years. He’ll need our help if this project is going to reach its potential. Sign up to receive updates on the ANF home page.

What’s your Acupuncture Degree Worth?

Answer: Less than it used to be.

(Please, sign the petition.)

If you earned an MAc and Dipl. Ac (NCCAOM) twenty years ago, you thought you had it made. You could get a license in almost all states with licensure. The schools and the NCCAOM touted the caliber of the education and credentials. You knew you had plenty to learn about this medicine, but you could practice safely.

In the gainful employment letter ACAOM points to the (supposed) earnings of those long-ago grads to minimize the financial struggles of recent grads.

But in 1995 the NCCAOM added the Herbal exam, and later the OM. Some states now require those additional credentials of all practitioners. ACAOM has increased hourly requirements for school accreditation several times. And the NCCAOM has put additional limits on who can take their exams.

Some of our most esteemed teachers do not meet the current requirements for sitting the exams. Many practitioners are trapped, unable to relocate.

By increasing the range of degrees and credentials available before our “brand” was established and our profession was strong, the alphabets increased division and confusion. No wonder the public can’t figure out how an LAc’s education compares to that of other providers.

And here comes the First Professional Doctorate. With this new degree, my alma mater announces,

“[graduates] will be recognized as doctors, both professionally and publicly, and will have increased credibility and standing.”

If graduates with an FPD have increased credibility and standing, what has happened to the credibility and standing of graduates of Masters programs?

According to ACAOM’s gainful employment letter, licensure requirements just happen, and practice success is a simple matter of practitioner choice.

Really, though, the “alphabets” have played a significant role in the expansion of requirements and credential creep, and most of the schools do little to teach students how to make wise business choices.

If, as ACAOM wrote, the graduates of twenty years ago do so well, why have entry level requirements been increased so much? Why are grads struggling to pay off existing loans encouraged to return to school to maintain their credibility? Will the NCCAOM require an FPD to sit their exams? Will the alphabets encourage states to require it for licensure?

ACAOM/NCCAOM/CCAOM/AAAOM — if you represent us, defend the value of our degrees and credentials. Your “options” too often become a requirements.

Colleagues, did the gainful employment letter represent your views? If not, sign the petition. 129 people have, which means ACAOM etc. can still claim to represent 32,871 of us.

For additional information and analysis about educational costs and value, check out this from The New York Times and two posts from Dr. Phil Garrison