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.

 

 

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 Licensing and Regulation – The Future

Imagine that your acupuncture license meant you could easily practice in every state.

Imagine that licensure exams focused on the skills and knowledge needed to practice safely.

Imagine that acupuncture schools used the time spent teaching things “you won’t need in practice but they’ll be on the exam” to teach things that you really will need in practice, including all that business stuff.

Imagine that acupuncture boards, associations, and organizations worked to make it easier and less expensive for practitioners to obtain and maintain licenses and practice within their skill set.

I wish I could say “it’s easy if you try” – but for most of us it isn’t. (Unless you look to other professions.)

The Florida Acupuncture Board now requires all new practitioners to spend thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars on additional education and testing to become Board-certified in herbs. Even though there was no evidence of public harm under the previous rules, and even for those who won’t use herbs in practice.

The Nevada Board is trying to change the regulations to require a DOM or DAOM of all applicants (about 40K on top of an 80K MAOM). Not because there is evidence of public harm, but because that’s the way it is in China. And never mind that the entire state is served by fewer than 50 acupuncturists.

In July 2015 the White House released Occupational Licensing: A Framework for Policymakers. While acknowledging that licensing can provide health and safety protections to consumers and benefits to workers, it concludes,

“State legislators and policymakers should adopt institutional reforms that promote a more careful and individualized approach to occupational regulation that takes into account its costs and benefits, and harmonizes requirements across States. If they are successful, the collective effect of their efforts could be substantial: making it easier for qualified workers to find jobs and move where they choose, increasing access to essential goods and services, and lessening heavy burdens on certain populations….”

Acupuncturists are the policymakers in our profession. Wouldn’t it be great to determine what’s truly needed for public safety and to adjust educational and licensing requirements accordingly? Rather than blaming others for our difficulties, wouldn’t it be more productive to direct our energy to changing the things we can control? We can demand that the insurance companies pay us more because our education cost so much, or we can make our education less costly. We can sue the PT Boards to try and protect our turf, or we can make sure that anyone who wants acupuncture is able to access convenient and affordable services from an acupuncturist.

I’ll be sharing actions you can take to change our practice environment for the better. Like the Acupuncture Regulation US page on Facebook and stay tuned in here, at The Acupuncture Observer, for updates.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

Talking about our Education

“We have over (2000 hours, 4000 hours, 3 years, 4 years) of education and they want to do acupuncture with (a weekend, less than ten, 200 hours) of training!The public is in danger.”

“The (PT’s, Chiropractors, MD’s) doing acupuncture are significantly undertrained! If they want to do acupuncture they need to go to acupuncture school, or at least take (400, 500,1000) hours of training.”

It’s a no brainer, right? But ….

1) We are comparing our total professional education to additional post-professional-degree hours.

An MSAOM curriculum includes: Biochemistry, Introduction to Organic Chemistry, Anatomy and Physiology, Microbiology, Introduction to Western Pathology, and a Survey of Western Clinic Sciences (3 semesters). M.D.’s have already covered these classes in their education.

2) Does the aspect of “our” medicine they want to use require a full TCM education?

Is Tai Qi, Qi Gong, Introduction to Botany, 40 credits of herbal medicine, a semester of auricular acupuncture and 3 semesters of point location needed for a PT to safely use a needle to release a trigger point? (If you insist they learn all of that, won’t they then argue that they can also do auricular acupuncture and distal points?)

3) How well-educated are most acupuncture school graduates? How worthwhile was most of their time spent in school?

ACAOM standards were based on the programs that existed at the time credentials were being established. They were not based on a careful analysis of what was needed to train safe, effective, successful practitioners. Acupuncture related Facebook groups include posts asking about using moxa to turn breech babies, how to treat TMJ (no pulse, tongue, or presentation information provided), and recommendations for treating people undergoing chemotherapy. With our thousands of hours of training, shouldn’t we know the answers to these questions? (Or have a better source than Facebook for answers?)

4) Is there a correlation between the length of a program and the quality of the graduates? Were the early U.S. practitioners (many of whom had less than 1300 hours of training) harming the public?

It is an article of faith in the acupuncture community — our training of X hours is necessary for safety, and anything less is an affront and a danger. Yet a colleague recently wrote “I am at a medical acupuncture conference. Exceeding my expectation. The presenters know their stuff. Lots of depth…. I am going to find out about their training. Maybe they are a special group….what i am seeing here meets any high standards TCM conference…. Very surprised.”

The more (as defined by us) = better has done us no favors. The numbers we fight for are arbitrary. The argument is easily refuted by other providers. Adopting it within our profession has increased the business strangling debt-burden new grads carry. And created internal divisions which only further harm our growth. (How long before a state (or the NCCAOM) demands the FPD to become an LAc?)

Please, let’s let the knee-jerk “less is dangerous, more is better” argument go.

Licensure News

Finally! At the May 6th Delaware Board of Medicine meeting two experienced and NCCAOM-credentialed acupuncturists were granted Delaware licenses, bringing the number of the LAcs in the state to just under forty. This is good news for the people of Delaware. It is also good news for the profession as whole. And hopeful news for the practitioners who are now commuting to Maryland, or not practicing, because they were unable to obtain a Delaware license.

Why did it take action from the MD’s on the BOM to get these practitioners licensed?

These LAcs had appeared before the Acupuncture Advisory Board four times since applying for licensure in late 2012/early 2013. At several of these appearances the Acupuncture Advisory Board members acknowledged the applicants’ excellent qualifications but refused to grant licenses despite having the authority to do so.

For decades one of our “sacred cows” has been that we need our own boards. Then we’ll have the power to control our destiny. Sadly, when given the chance, some of us prefer to control our destiny right down the tubes.

Consider the history of the independent California Acupuncture Board, with its unique accreditation and exam process, and its ongoing problems. Or Nevada, with an independent board, 53 LAcs, a $1000 application fee and $700 per year renewal fee.  If Delaware had an independent board my colleagues would have had to go to the courts to present the argument (made by a public member of the Board of Medicine) that requiring an herbal education and exam for individuals who do not want to use herbs in their practice, in a state in which anyone can sell and recommend herbs, is restraint of trade.

It isn’t the M.D.’s and “the system” that is limiting the growth of our profession these days. It is other acupuncturists. I’ve asked and asked, but I have yet to find anyone who can explain why the Florida (independent) Acupuncture board is increasing the education and testing requirements for licensure. Have patients been harmed? If a change is needed are there options that would be less burdensome for the profession?

I’ll be interested to see the full minutes of the May 6th DE BOM meeting. In a classic conjunction of issues, a practitioner instrumental in drafting the restrictive Delaware law, and a current Acupuncture Board member who had voted against granting licenses to the two qualified acupuncturists, appeared before the BOM to ask them to do something to stop PT’s from doing dry needling.

Did either of these practitioners consider that their previous actions that limit the number of LAcs in Delaware increase the odds that citizens will seek treatment from non-LAcs? Or that our political power is limited by our small numbers? Did the BOM wonder what’s up with this profession — they don’t want anyone to use a needle, even other LAcs?  (FWIW, the BOM doesn’t regulate PT’s.)

You’d think that our own self-interest would prevent the credential and educational creep that costs us so much. But it hasn’t. The AMA Code of Medical Ethics states “A physician shall respect the law and also recognize a responsibility to seek changes in those requirements which are contrary to the best interests of the patient.” Restrictive laws and rules that limit access to qualified acupuncturists are contrary to the best interests of patients. Let’s work for change – for the people who need acupuncture and the qualified individuals who want to provide acupuncture. Credential creep hurts us all.

LAcs = Tea Party & Acupuncture Today = Fox News?

The threat to acupuncture from dry needling is like the threat to “traditional” marriage from gay marriage. That is, the real threat is our obsession with the issue and our willingness to make any argument, no matter how ridiculous, to keep people from connecting with the provider of their choice.

Despite thousands of years of experience and a big head-start, we didn’t establish ourselves as the undisputed experts of this method of pain relief. Having failed to convince the PT Boards that PT’s performing dry needling is a danger to the public, or that LAcs should get to determine the appropriate training for this technique, we are now arguing that we’ll accept it, as long as it hurts.

The November 2013 issue of AcupunctureToday included Dry Needling: Averting a Crisis for the Profession, here is my response to AT —

Dr. Amaro’s “obvious solution” to Dry Needling, that PT’s be judicially mandated to use a hypodermic needle, is awful. Has it come to this? Despite our 2,000+ year head-start our plan for success is to require other providers to use a tool that causes tissue damage and pain? There is no non-political reason for a board to require its licensees to use an unnecessarily harmful tool. To present it as a possibility is an embarrassment to the profession.

While some auto insurance and worker’s compensation will reimburse for dry needling, for the most part Trigger Point Dry Needling is not a billable service when performed by a physical therapist. It is considered “experimental and unproven” by Medicare and major medical insurance companies. And, if it were true that PT’s were getting rich on reimbursements for this technique, is that an argument against allowing them to perform an effective procedure? Don’t we support people getting relief from pain, regardless of who is paying the bill?

It would be tragic if we were successful in requiring everyone using a filiform needle to use the term acupuncture while losing the battle to prevent non-LAcs from performing the technique. Given various rulings of state AG’s, and of the regulatory boards responsible for other professions, this is a strong possibility. Then, we will have lost our ability to distinguish what we do from what others do. (And, ironically, would help PT’s obtain reimbursement.)

We had decades to establish ourselves as the experts in this technique. We didn’t, and, frankly, many of us are unpracticed with it and uninterested in making it a major part of our clinic offerings.  Addressing unfair reimbursement scenarios is reasonable. Respectfully presenting evidence-based concerns about risks to the public is part of our civic duty. Our ongoing panicked response to TPDN, with arguments based on misinformation or a misunderstanding of such basic topics as scope and the regulatory process, culminating in the argument in Acupuncture Today – that it’s okay as long as it hurts –  is the real threat to our reputation and our future.

I encourage you to read all of my posts on this topic (you can get them via the categories or tags on the homepage) and on scope of practice. It is time for the acupuncture profession to stop shooting itself in the foot.

Smart Policy for the Acupuncture Profession

That’s my agenda —  to help acupuncturists and their affiliated organizations (AAAOM, NCCAOM, ACAOM, state organizations, schools, etc.) explore and analyze policy choices to help identify smart and effective policies and to avoid knee-jerk wild goose chases and unintended consequences.

My agenda is not to overthrow the NCCAOM, undermine the AAAOM, or to create conflict and division.

We are suffering from a professional auto-immune disease. How many subjects have been the greatest threat to the profession? How many LAcs have walked away from professional affiliations disheartened at the amount of energy spent attacking other professions or colleagues? How many of us react with outrage the moment we hear of some challenge, ready to mount an attack before we have all the information?

As acupuncturists, we see the suffering that results from an overactive immune system. Let’s stop making that mistake.

Last month I shared my email to my state association regarding their comments at an Advisory Board meeting. Here is ASVA’s response, and here is my reply. (I include the documents to show how challenging it can be to have non-triggered dialogue on an issue facing the profession. Rest assured, I am grateful to those who serve.)

Sacred Cows

The First in a Recurring Feature —

As I was leaving an Acupuncture Advisory Board meeting I had a brief discussion with a Medical Acupuncturist (an MD who does acupuncture) who had attended the meeting as an observer.  It left me pondering one of the “truths” trotted out whenever acupuncturists talk about non-LAcs using acupuncture (and even sometimes when folks from one acupuncture lineage talk about a different tradition) – that treatment from “one of those” practitioners might reduce pain and symptoms and the patient might feel better, but, because the underlying imbalance wouldn’t be treated, the patient would be harmed.

I’ve heard it said about PT’s doing dry needling, and in the past I’ve said it myself about Medical Acupuncturists.  In the conversation I was having, the Medical Acupuncturist said he had concerns with patients going to LAc’s if they hadn’t first been seen by an MD.  After all, he said, in what I’m sure he thought was a respectful and honoring way, you guys are SO GOOD at treating pain, you could mask an underlying serious condition.

I set aside my immediate desire to respond, hey, that’s what we say about you because your acupuncture training is so pathetic (yes, old habits die hard).  I tucked away for future action my shame that after all these years we LAcs haven’t done a better job educating and connecting with the MD’s who respect and use our medicine.  (No doubt they have much to teach us about things like participating in Medicare and could be allies in some of our political work.)  And I have continued to ponder this idea that acupuncture, done by anyone, could really treat symptoms well while leaving a festering problem untouched. Can this happen?  Does it?  I mean sure, maybe for a week or two, but isn’t one of the underlying teachings of our paradigm that if we don’t treat the underlying imbalance the problem will continue to reveal itself?

I’ve begun to think that this belief is nothing more than a Sacred Cow.  What do you think? I don’t need to hear about MD’s missing medical diagnoses, or about the harm done by western treatments.  I’m looking for the specifics in which acupuncture treatments relieved symptoms but did not address the underlying imbalance, thereby doing harm.