A Feature or a Bug?

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When a trusted business or organization screws up, it’s good to give them the benefit of the doubt. We all make mistakes.

I have trusted the NCCAOM. They were important to our acceptance as a legitimate profession. In 2014 I encouraged people to support a transition to their exams in California, hopeful that one national standard of entry would further the growth of the profession.

But I’ve noticed a pattern – the NCCAOM makes a big announcement and seems unprepared for the response. They scramble to address the upset, explaining why we don’t understand their good intentions or their difficult position.

I used to think it was a bug. They just weren’t as competent as I’d thought. And Acupuncturists mostly don’t understand their role and are quick to react.

But now I think it’s a feature.

We don’t understand their role because they talk out of both sides of their mouth – they say or do contradictory things depending on their immediate desire.

In the “NCCAOM Questions and Clarifications” document (released in draft format), their response to the reaction to the changes in testing policies, the NCCAOM writes:

“There are some policies where we may ask our stakeholders’ opinions and use that to determine policy.  There are many other policies where this is not appropriate because of the requirements of our accrediting body, fiduciary responsibilities (the fiscal health of NCCAOM), or impacts to public safety need to drive our policy decisions.  NCCAOM is not a membership organization, it is a credentialing organization. Examples of this include: the elimination of the apprenticeship-only route, elimination of the pre-graduation route, and the revisions to the NCCAOM® Code of Ethics and the Grounds for Professional Discipline. These are examples that our policies are driven by our NCCA accreditation standards.”

But the NCCAOM did ask for input on the Code of Ethics and Professional Discipline, and their revised code reflected that input.

And the NCCAOM did step back from some of their announced changes in response to concerns from stakeholders. Clearly they had some flexibility, and could have done this prior to their announcement.

And in 2016 the NCCAOM shared –  “Breaking News! New Membership Organization Announcement!” describing their “Academy of Diplomates.” The Academy Board is a subset of the NCCAOM Board, your NCCAOM recertification fees support this organization, and links on the Academy website take you back to the NCCAOM. No wonder we’re confused.

In “Questions and Clarifications” we read – “It is no secret that the number of students taking the exams, annually, has dropped dramatically over the past decade.” Their upbeat NCCAOM Spring 2018 newsletter doesn’t mention it, nor has it been a topic in their frequent Acupuncture Today articles. Study their annual reports and you can uncover the truth, but that isn’t the news they’ve been sharing.

Fewer people taking the tests means fewer new practitioners. Shouldn’t the profession give scrupulous consideration to any policy or regulatory changes that make it harder to enter the field?

The NCCAOM’s current honesty regarding their financial concerns is appreciated. It also demands that we reconsider their previous denials that money drives their policy positions. Their support of efforts to require the herb exam of all practitioners (UtahNCCAOMletter), and their complicated PDA system, make sense from a financial perspective, not from a safety one.

The NCCAOM denies that their exams shape our education. They say schools should not teach to the test. They also advertise, “It is recommended that ACAOM Approved Schools Faculty members sign up for [the NCCAOM] practice tests to familiarize themselves with the process.”

They dismiss concerns that a new voluntary certificate program could become mandatory. They simultaneously support efforts to make the voluntary herb testing mandatory.

Underneath it all is the refrain, the “NCCAOM’s number one priority and mission is to protect the public.” This is as it should be. But one insurer recently reported receiving 1-3 reports of harm per week, including reports of pneumothorax, burns, and infections. In a profession of, at best, 30,000 practitioners, shared between multiple insurers, that’s alarming. Is there evidence that patients in Maryland or West Virginia, where there is no NCCAOM testing requirement, are more likely to suffer harm?

With great power comes great responsibility. The NCCAOM denies their power and their responsibility, but they are the gatekeeper to the profession. They have us by the short hairs. Their denials aren’t believable.

I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt for years. I’ve explained away their errors as bugs and defended their good intentions. It’s painful to acknowledge that I no longer trust the NCCAOM.

They need to get a lot more honest and a lot more competent quickly, or we need to get serious about finding an alternative.

 

 

 

Third Night – Lowering Standards!?

In recent conversations with colleagues I’ve heard a few exclaim “we won’t agree to lower our standards!” and “we aren’t going to go backwards on our education!”

I haven’t heard anyone suggesting that we lower our standards or go backwards, so I was baffled.

Only momentarily, though, because then I remembered -The Acupuncture Revisions Proposal from the POCA Tech BOD to “revise acupuncture education and testing standards so as to benefit current and future (1) acupuncture students, (2) acupuncture schools, (3) acupuncturists, and (4) the general public.”

They make clear that their proposed standards are based around students meeting all of the competencies required for ACAOM accreditation and preparing graduates to be safe and effective practitioners. (The proposal is concise, well-written, and worth reading. Please do.)

Unfortunately, “high standards” in this profession has come to mean number of hours spent in school. So any change in the number of hours is interpreted as a lowering of standards.

I understand how it happened. When we’ve fought for acceptance, we’ve stressed our hours of training to establish our worth. When clients mention that they got acupuncture from their Chiropractor, we talk about how much time we spent in acupuncture school compared to the D.C.’s short courses. Hours of education has been a battle cry in the dry needling fight. (Which has been mostly unpersuasive since the PT’s 1) deal in competencies, and 2) we use different rules when we count our hours and we count theirs.)

Actually, a standard is “a conspicuous object (such as a banner) formerly carried at the top of a pole and used to mark a rallying point especially in battle.” (Merriam-Webster).

So, hours has become our standard. But it’s such a meaningless standard. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been to three-day CEU classes that have been a complete waste of time while a one-hour class contains a transformative nugget. I’ve spoken to people who have taught at some acupuncture schools and the picture they paint is not of hour after hour of quality programming.

We’ve got a workforce that needs to grow. And levels of educational debt that are an impediment to professional success. Affording graduate school and repaying loans isn’t going to get easier.

Read the Acupuncture Revisions Proposal with an open mind.

Our banner should be more meaningful than a number.

 

 

Proposal regarding Acupuncture Education

The POCA Tech Board of Directors has been studying what it takes to become an LAc and wondering whether there isn’t a better way. POCA Tech has been approved by ACAOM as a candidate for accreditation, and has graduates who are NCCAOM-credentialed, state-licensed and working in the field. The POCA Tech BOD is in a good position to know what works. Here’s what they propose –

Acupuncture Revisions Proposal

I’ve been around long enough to expect the proposal will be met with some outrage. We’ve been insisting that it is the hours of education we have that set us apart. And that almost 2000 hours of training only scratches the surface of what there is to know about Acupuncture and Asian Medicine.

I’ve also been around long enough to know that 1305 hours of training is enough to produce competent providers. That there are countless CEU programs and additional degree programs to help us deepen our knowledge. And that there is no clear evidence that our more extensive training leads to better outcomes.

People want acupuncture. We need more practitioners to meet the demand. And 100K in debt helps no one. I think the POCA Tech proposal makes a lot of sense. What do you think?

 

 

Happy AOM Day??

“Acupuncture is a safe and cost-effective treatment that could benefit so many. If only the medical establishment could see the benefits of what we do.”

That was our mantra decades ago.

So one might think, now that Acupuncture has become accepted and of increasing interest to the establishment, we’d be happy, thriving, and confident.

But that isn’t the prevailing feeling. We love our work and most of us couldn’t imagine doing anything else. And yet AOM Day 2017 finds us fearful and disheartened.

Many of us carry significant debt and are not earning enough to pay it down in a timely fashion. Many of us are limited in where and how we practice due to varying state rules. The hoped for benefits from insurance reimbursement came with significant administrative burden and limits on what will be covered. Increasingly acupuncture is being provided by non-acupuncturists. Meanwhile, the profession isn’t growing. Based on figures from Acupuncture Today, there are fewer LAcs now (24,612) than there were in November 2013 (24,707).

So it is not surprising that we aren’t hopeful. The public and the medical establishment see the value of acupuncture, but we aren’t thriving.

There are things we control that could change our trajectory.

Those of us who completed acupuncture training prior to 1990 (some of our most admired mentors and colleagues) probably got about 1000 hours of formal schooling. If you graduated in 2000 you likely had about 1725 hours of schooling, and if you completed your training after 2011 your program was at least 1905 hours.

You can see, here, how the Virginia regulations have changed over the years. The hourly requirements did not change in response to concerns about practitioner safety or skill, but to keep the regulations compatible with the ACAOM and NCCAOM requirements.

In 1988 tuition at The Traditional Acupuncture Institute (now MUIH) was $11,000 (about $23,000 in today’s dollars). When I started in 1992 it was about $18,540, ($32,616 in today’s dollars). By 2003 tuition had increased to $32,865 ($43,722 in 2017 dollars). And, if I wanted to begin at MUIH today, the program would take almost four years to complete with tuition of $75,924. For a Masters in Oriental Medicine, necessary to practice in Florida, California, and Nevada, I’d pay $99,604.

A student loan of $40,000 at 6.8% interest can be paid off in 10 years at $460/month – considered manageable with an annual salary of about 50K. A $100,000 loan will take over $1150/month and you’d need to make almost 140K/year to manage that.

So it’s not surprising that the profession isn’t growing and that acupuncturists are worried.

Sure, the NCCAOM can embark on a major public education campaign touting our training and credentials.(Well, touting their credential, actually). That’s fine. But with the downward pressure on health care spending in this country, and the impact of debt considerations on professional training, it’s going to take some damn fine PR to make a difference. (Big Pharma & Health Products spent about 245 million on lobbying in 2016.)

A far more direct way to help the profession grow, help future graduates make a living, and make Acupuncturists available to those who want acupuncture would be to address our training. If those who graduated in 1989 were safe with a 1000 hour $18,000 education, why do current students need at least 1905 hours and $75,000? Can we simplify the path and reduce the cost of becoming an Acupuncturist? (Yes, we can!)

If people want acupuncture they will find a way to get it. If we’re not there to provide it, someone else will be. We do have the power to change this, and it won’t take 245 million. In honor of AOM Day 2017, let’s agree that more Acupuncturists and less debt would be a very good thing.

 

 

Ethical Questions

Our future requires a willingness to explore beyond our quick conclusions of what is “right” and what is “wrong.” How do we proceed when two “rights” are in conflict with each other, or when a good end might depend upon a questionable means (or vice versa)?

Providing safe, effective, and accessible treatment to everyone who wants/needs treatment while also supporting ourselves and our families requires us to face various ethical quandaries. Many ethics classes are short on teaching principles to guide ethical decision-making and are long on lists of rules like “don’t have sex with your patients.”

Marilyn Allen’s recent column on ethics demands our attention. She’s had a significant role in shaping the acupuncture profession, and she teaches ethics. She has power.

The column focused on a discussion about “gainful employment” that has since been removed from the AAAOM practitioner forum.

The forum included colleagues sharing concerns about their debt, and upset at schools that exaggerated the future acupuncture job market while glossing over the skills and financial backing needed for success.

Ms. Allen (who has given considerable funding to the AAAOM over the years) is angry that this discussion was permitted. She insists that it is in the best interest of the profession, and our future colleagues, to keep concerns to ourselves. Even a shared conversation in a practitioner forum is too risky. We “should have shown support for the schools,” she writes.

Ms. Allen proposes the Rotary’s Four-Way test in her column. It’s not my preferred guideline for ethical decision-making, but since she refers to it I’ll use it —

 

1) Is it true? Many graduates of acupuncture schools do struggle to pay off debt. Schools did use misleading data in promotional materials, leading to unrealistic career expectations. The proposed Gainful Employment regulations did raise concerns about acupuncture programs. The forum topic is no longer present to allow for a complete fact check, but my assessment is that much of the content was true.

2) Is it fair to all concerned? What do we mean by “fair.” Who is “all concerned?” And what is “it?” I could write a post on each question. When a topic is being explored by many people, in many settings, does each contribution need to reflect the views and feelings of each stakeholder? Is it unfair to share our personal experiences and opinions about a system in which we have little power and bear the consequences? Is it fair for a membership association to solicit the opinions of its members? My assessment – it was fair for the AAAOM to provide a forum and for practitioners to use it.

3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Humans do better when we know we are not alone. Sharing our concerns and our experiences is a way to build community and friendships, which support us in our sometimes isolated professional life. Knowing that other regulated fields share these concerns can also help build goodwill and understanding. If we feel that a friend (or, in this case, a system) is taking advantage of us, does it strengthen the friendship and build goodwill if we speak up, or stay quiet and suffer? Yes, the discussion had the potential to build friendships and goodwill. Ms. Allen’s column, by advocating denial and repression, does not.

4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned? My list of people who would benefit from the conversation, even if it escaped the private forum: current debt holders who feel alone and unheard, schools who care whether graduates are satisfied, potential students who may not have fully explored the economics of entering their dream career, and taxpayers who may not want to subsidize ineffective programs. The discussion isn’t beneficial for the schools that want to keep raking in loan money while avoiding responsibility. Should we be censored for their benefit?

Ms. Allen writes “It is sad when you read an article about the profession that contains negativity coming from inside the profession. Essentially, this is giving the other professions (those looking to treat acupuncture patients) the ammunition they need to diminish acupuncture and attain their own goals.

I say, it’s sad when those with the power to change things for the better instead advocate for a flawed status quo. It’s a danger sign when secrecy is demanded for the good of the group. The Catholic Church and the Penn State Football program are examples of the moral failure that comes with that argument.

Thank goodness we’re dealing with finances and not child abuse. Nonetheless, shutting down conversation and preaching secrecy is neither ethical nor effective. If Ms. Allen wants to uphold acupuncture as the place “where hope and healing meet” then we need to delve into our challenges, not hide them.

 

 

Protected: An Immature Profession

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Acupuncture Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism is the idea that The United States of America is inherently different from other nations. That our founding and background gives the US a unique mission to transform the world and a superiority over all of other nations.

I’ve recently noticed that practitioners of Chinese/East Asian Medicine have their own version of this, which I call Acupuncture Exceptionalism.

The attitude of exceptionalism skews the interpretation of events. Our own actions are given the benefit of the doubt and ascribed to the best of intentions. The actions of others are considered with a critical eye.

Some examples of Acupuncture Exceptionalism:

We regularly advise clients regarding vaccinations, pharmaceuticals, procedures, and dietary plans suggested by other health care providers. When other providers advise about acupuncture and herbs we are outraged at their presumption.

We widely share studies and news reporting positive results from acupuncture treatment. Studies and news showing a negative outcome are dismissed because “they aren’t doing it right” or didn’t tell the whole story.

When a patient reports harm from “Western medicine” or a treatment done by a non-LAc we rant about the failings of the system or the provider. When a patient reports harm after a treatment provided by an Acupuncturist we find ways to deny that harm occurred, find another cause for the situation, or place responsibility on the patient.

We encourage patients who have been harmed by dry needling to report it to the authorities, and if they won’t we will. We are shocked and angry when a patient files a formal complaint pertaining to treatment received from an Acupuncturist.

We complain that PT’s are engaging in insurance fraud by using the Manual Therapy code for Dry Needling. We justify the use of pain codes for every client, because, well, everyone has pain and, after all, the system is stacked against us.

We are furious that other professions are using “our” medicine, especially without what we determine to be appropriate training. We add homeopathy to our scope without a second thought.

We support and celebrate a lawsuit filed against a PT Regulatory Board as an appropriate defense of our profession. We are outraged when a counter-suit is filed against our board.

 

An attitude of American Exceptionalism does not increase the standing of the US in the eyes of the world. You can’t learn from mistakes when they are denied or explained away. Hypocrisy and double-standards impress no one.

Likewise, Acupuncture Exceptionalism does a disservice to our medicine and to our future as health care providers. If our medicine is powerful enough to help people, it is powerful enough to cause harm. Denying risk puts our patients and our profession at risk. Dismissing valid concerns about acupuncture and herbs from other professionals prevents us from establishing collaborative and respectful connections. If we want to improve our skills and training and service, we must take a clear-eyed look at where we are succeeding and where we could do better.

I’m confident enough about the benefits and overall safety of this medicine that I’m not afraid of looking inward with a critical eye. Are you?

 

 

Dry Needling and Acupuncture 2015 – The State of the Profession

Dry Needling wins again – it receives “the greatest threat to the profession” practitioner’s choice award.

In recent years, Acupuncturists have devoted more resources to this issue than to any other.

A (fairly accurate) review of legal and regulatory actions shows that we’re not having much success. (Here’s another review, APTA’s Dry Needling Resource Paper.)

Even our wins have been temporary. For example –

– the Georgia Acupuncture Board added language stating that Dry Needling is acupuncture. The PT’s then added Dry Needling to their scope via legislation. (Could Georgia PT’s now advertise they’re doing acupuncture?)

– the October 2014 ruling in Washington State against dry needling was widely celebrated. Now the PT’s have introduced bills which would add Dry Needling to their scope. With almost 5,000 PT’s in the state, and about 1,100 LAcs, it’s likely they’ll eventually succeed.

We say the PT’s:

  • are stealing our medicine! (But we don’t own it.)
  • are illegally expanding their scope. (The majority of states have ruled it is in the PT scope. Modifications to scope are common in health care.)
  • are using Regulation to do what should be done Legislatively. (Scope clarification is often done via Regulation, which gives the public and other professionals the opportunity to weigh in and is preferable to politically driven legislative action. The public is protected through regulation. The PT’s have been successful in passing Legislation allowing dry needling.)
  • are pursuing this because their own techniques don’t work. (Even if true, 1) why does that matter, and 2) does the argument apply to us when we add techniques lasers, essential oils, e-stim, herbs –  to our scope?)
  • can’t possibly know enough to do this technique safely. (Many clearly do.)
  • can’t possibly be providing good treatments. (Their patients disagree.)
  • wrongly say that dry needling isn’t acupuncture. (Is it better if they say it is? Is there a legal reason our definition should prevail?)
  • make the public fear acupuncture. (Insisting this technique is acupuncture will contribute to the problem. Don’t we have the same problem when we use the technique?)
  • should use hypodermic needles. (Does that show concern for public safety?)

We can continue the fight to stop dry needling – getting caught in the cycle of suit (complaint) (never-mind the SCOTUS ruling) and counter-suit (NC PT lawsuit). We can fight state by state, and attack any Acupuncturist who suggests anything other than “the PT’s must be stopped.” We can keep insisting that if we just devote more resources and fight harder, we’ll win.

Or, we can learn from our history and the history of all of the other professions that have fought to maintain a monopoly on technique or turf.

We could be fighting for strong regulations. Mandated adverse effect reporting, strict definitions of what dry needling is and what it isn’t (other than whether or not it is acupuncture), requiring direct supervision for all clinical hours, requiring PT’s to post their hours of training, requiring registration with the PT Board, requiring physician referral for dry needling – all of these are possible.

A PR campaign promoting acupuncture and helping the public find an Acupuncturist? That’s possible too. Supporting ease of licensure so that people in every state can find an LAc? We can work for that. Support for new practitioners so that the public can actually find an Acupuncturist? That’s a great goal. Building collaborative relationships with other professionals who want to decrease pain and suffering? That would serve everyone.

Putting our energy into stopping dry needling? Not so much. It’s our obsession with stopping dry needling that is the greatest threat to the profession.

 

 

Acupuncture Education 2015 – The State of the Profession

If we want people who want acupuncture to receive it from an Acupuncturist, acupuncture education deserves our attention.

There aren’t good statistics on how many Acupuncturists or acupuncture students there are in the US. But those handy maps printed in Acupuncture Today can give us some idea. The December 2013 issue (with an article on AT’s unprecedented growth) showed 24,342 Acupuncturist and 3,124 student issues mailed. In December 2015 – 24,231 Acupuncturist and 2,624 student issues mailed. That’s not growth. The 2014 NCCAOM Annual Report (the most recent available) also reveals – we are not a growing profession.

There is a lot of churn in Acupuncture education — schools close, schools open, programs merge, new degree programs are established. New Gainful employment rules adopted in late 2014 may well contribute to that churn. They require for-profit schools (about 50% of acupuncture programs) to provide at least some debt and jobs data to prospective students.

Small class sizes can skew the data. Still, check out these reports (selected because they came up first in Google): Emperors, ACAOM (the school not the agency), Arizona School of AOM, Midwest, AIAM, and Colorado School of TCM.

Only two schools reported job placement, at 50% and 67%. Median loan amount (omitting a 1.5 million figure given by Midwest that must be a mistake) ranged from 17K to 72K. A real eye opener was the percentage of students completing the program in the expected time frame. The average across all 6 programs was 55%. Omit the 100% reported by Arizona, currently on probation with ACAOM (the agency), and it’s 46%.

It’s not encouraging. Add student uncertainty that the degree they obtain will enable them to practice and it is no surprise our profession isn’t growing.

Imagine if we could tell prospective practitioners –  “A Master’s Degree in Acupuncture from any ACAOM accredited program will fulfill the educational requirements to practice in any state.”

I may not love the ACAOM standards but I’ll accept them to help the profession. Is there a downside to offset the upside?

NGAOM you have a stated goal of establishing uniform standards, yet are fighting to keep California schools out of the ACAOM system. Please explain.

We had some significant losses in Acupuncture education in 2015.

Spring brought news that Dianne Connolly and Bob and Susan Duggan would no longer teach or be part of the program at MUIH (which Bob and Dianne founded in 1974 as The Maryland College of Chinese Acupuncture). Bob and Dianne are part of the foundation of this medicine in the US. They profoundly influenced my acupuncture journey and it is a significant loss that they won’t be part of every MUIH student’s education. I am glad they are continuing to teach and share their wisdom in other settings.

Bob Duggan played an integral role in establishing acupuncture standards, credentials, agencies, and commissions. His goal in so doing was to enable this safe and effective medicine to be legally available to more people. He shared in a personal communication his ambivalence at how things turned out – that though his work enabled so many people to be healers and to be healed, “If I had real courage I’d have gone to jail and insisted this was the people’s medicine and we shouldn’t allow it to be professionalized.”

2015 closed with another loss, the death of Dr. Richard Teh-Fu Tan. Dr. Tan was an excellent teacher, deeply committed to teaching. Directly, and through his students, he eased the suffering of countless patients. Dr. Tan made no secret of his doubts about the caliber of acupuncture education most of his students received in their degree programs. Many seminar attendees reported learning more about effective acupuncture in four days with Dr. Tan than in four years of acupuncture school.

Attention must be paid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herbal Regulation and the Acupuncture Profession – A Better Way.

We’ve got competition. PT’s, MD’s, and DC’s are excited about filiform needles and LAcs are freaking out.

While our energy has been focused on that competition (our training and skills are superior, right?) we haven’t been paying attention to increasing restrictions on our ability to practice the fullness of our medicine. Adding insult to injury, the restrictions on practice are “coming from inside the house.”

I’m talking about restrictions on our use of herbs.

Yes, herbal medicine is powerful and complex and carries both potential risk and potential benefit. Yes, it takes many thousands of hours to come close to mastery of this branch of our medicine. Yes, people have been harmed by the improper use of herbs and supplements. And, yes, at some point the damage done by the misuse of herbs may result in stricter regulation. We may indeed lose access to more herbs.

It’s good that we want to be proactive, protecting the public and the profession from harm. It’s not so good if our actions don’t have the desired result. And not good at all if our actions increase risk to the public and the profession.

Let’s consider the terrain —

  • What portion of harm from herbs/supplements is the result of poor practice by Acupuncturists?
  • What portion of harm from herbs is from the use of raw herbs, what portion is from pre-made herbal formulas?
  • Does preventing certain LAcs from recommending herbs or supplements limit public access to these products?
  • Is the average LAc, even without herbal training, likely to have a positive or negative impact on client’s proper use of herbs and supplements?
  • Which are better tailored to the individualized treatment that is a hallmark of Chinese Medicine — pre-made/patent formulas or raw herbs?
  • Which are more likely to be contaminated with banned substances or prescription medicine – patent formulas or raw herbs?
  • Is it possible to draw a bright line between dietary therapy and herbal therapy?
  • Does limiting LAc recommendation of herbs interfere with the ability of other health care providers or salespeople to recommend or sell herbs or supplements?

See where I am going with this?

Anyone can get Chinese herbs, even dangerous ones. Increasing the regulatory burden on Acupuncturists would make sense if it would protect the public or our access to the full pharmacopoeia on an ongoing basis. It would make sense if LAcs were routinely endangering the public through unregulated use of herbs.

It doesn’t make sense for a subset of our profession to become the only group of health professionals not able to recommend herbs to their clients.

If the only groups weighing in are the schools and NCCAOM, formal (and expensive) training and credentialing will be increasingly required.

Let’s stand united against unnecessary restrictions. LAcs have an excellent safety record. Stay tuned for real-time developments and your opportunity to weigh in on the regulation of herbal medicine for Acupuncturists.