Medicare and Acupuncture: End of the Beginning, or Beginning of the End?

The opinions in this post are mine alone, and do not represent any organizations or associations with which I am affiliated.

 

When I started this post in early June I wrote –

Join your state association. The states will be distributing ASA-developed Educational materials and a survey regarding Medicare inclusion soon.

I was honored to be asked to participate in the ASA Medicare Working Group developing the materials. My goal, as always, is to provide vetted information and analysis so that we can make wise decisions and be prepared for consequences. The ASA Board knows I won’t tolerate anything less. It’s concerning that the NCCAOM made statements that they’re already pursuing Medicare inclusion, but the ASA insists they won’t move ahead without the support of the community.

By mid-June, I was concerned.

There was an inexplicable urgency to complete our work. There had been no attempt to work with outside experts to get definitive answers to issues still up for debate. Academics have studied Medicare’s impact on medical practice and physician satisfaction, and there are lawyers who specialize in Medicare law. Why not give us the time to hear from them about the likelihood of an opt out, or whether we can really expect better reimbursement rates?

I noticed a double-standard as we debated which opportunities and risks to include on our list. But I reminded myself that perception wasn’t reality, and that the ASA doesn’t have a ton of resources. That preparing legislation would take time. I still believed the ASA was committed to an honest process and I told myself that the board would correct any bias when they received the document for review.

I was going to write that the process was challenging, and the document wasn’t perfect. But it was the result of a good-faith effort and everyone should participate in the survey.

By late June, I was distressed.

The slight pro-inclusion tinge had been amplified by the Board’s edits. Several changes were so extreme that two of us (given only a few hours to express our concerns) asked that our names not appear on the ASA-Medicare-Educational-Brief (in the end it was signed “The Medicare Working Group”).

I was going write about where the document fell short, and where it was wrong. I’d share my growing sense that the ASA BOD wanted the survey results to give them a particular answer.

I’d encourage everyone to watch the recording of the June 24th ASA/NCCAOM Town Hall, because all of the scrambling to sell Medicare inclusion didn’t completely obscure hard realities. (Sure you’ll lose a little money on every treatment, but you’ll make up for it in volume!)

By the first days of July, I was dismayed.

Perhaps the ASA BOD doubted they’d get their hoped for outcome? Suddenly, the most controversial issues were no longer a concern. We’d definitely get opt out, reimbursement rates would be better. The ASA Revised Medicare Educational Brief was rushed out, which shows only two potential risks of Medicare inclusion. The old survey and any responses were killed and a new survey was distributed. There was a new Town Hall, and now we were told that we had nothing to worry about. The ASA newsletter asked “Are L.Ac.’s ready to take their rightful place in the federal medical system and reap the benefits of being a recognized part of mainstream medicine?” Look, Ma, NO Risks!

Had they finally consulted with experts and gotten better information? No, the sources were the lobbyists – those who make a living from convincing others that what the lobbyist advocates for is a good thing. Incorrect information about settled issues (such as the proper use of Advanced Beneficiary Notification) continues to be circulated.

(Will the lobbyists accept a contract based on Medicare reimbursement rates?)

I surrender.

The NCCAOM has resources and the ASA has the power to speak for the profession. It seems clear that, at some point, they will pursue legislation to add LAcs to the list of Medicare Providers. If this survey doesn’t turn out the way they want, there will be another.

The more we become enmeshed in the mainstream medical system, the more we’ll need the money of the NCCAOM (our money) to protect us, the more we’ll need to support the ASA so that they can look out for us. The lobbyists will have job security. I’m not so sure about us.

My upset isn’t because I believe Medicare inclusion will be bad for practitioners and the profession, though I do. It’s because our leadership is selling us a fairy tale rather than preparing us for the challenges that await.

I was recently described by a member of the ASA BOD as a straight shooter with great credibility. Believe me when I say that the ASA Medicare Educational Brief, in its current form, is a slanted document that presents an inaccurate picture of what life will be like for LAcs as Medicare providers. If you answer the survey keep this in mind.

Good luck to us all.

Medicare & Acupuncture: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, the Unknown.

Did you hear? Medicare now covers acupuncture. (For chronic low back pain (cLBP), with restrictions.)

January 22nd’s announcement was met with cheers, jeers, and confusion. There’s a lot we don’t know. And a fair bit we do. Let’s be informed and thoughtful.

Here’s the formal decision memo. The one page summary covers the important stuff. Please read it. And take a deep breath.

Here’s the helpful announcement released by the ASA and NCCAOM.

Please note – 1) LAcs with Master’s degrees from ACAOM accredited schools and a state license are included, no need for the NCCAOM credential, active or otherwise, unless your license requires it, and 2) LAcs won’t be able to bill directly for their services due to bureaucracy, not disrespect.

This announcement was a surprise. Just a few months ago CMS proposed clinical trials to evaluate acupuncture’s usefulness for cLBP. Perhaps the input from the ASA (CMS Commentary ASA) and the ANF, among others, made a difference.

My thoughts —

  • There is an opportunity here for LAcs interested in working in physician’s offices, and for physicians who want to provide their clients with non-pharmacological pain relief. That’s good.
  • It’s bad that reimbursement is limited to cLBP that is “nonspecific, in that it has no identifiable systemic cause (i.e., not associated with metastatic, inflammatory, infectious, etc. disease).” This limitation rules out many causes of pain that are likely to respond to treatment. The requirement that the pain be chronic, present for a minimum of 12 weeks, will also rule-out reimbursement for treatment in most hospital settings.
  • It’s bad that the billing arrangement and requirement of some (“appropriate”) supervision, as well as the administrative costs and reimbursement rates, will limit the number of participating practitioners thereby limiting the number of Medicare recipients who can access treatment.
  • Despite that, the limitation on direct billing by LAcs, and our designation as auxiliary personal, is, in my opinion, good, at least for now. Those of us who don’t want to participate don’t need to opt out, and LAcs won’t face restrictions on who we see and what we charge.
  • It’s bad that the profession is still relying on volunteers to navigate the complex bureaucracy involved with both public and private third party payer systems, and for keeping the profession informed. Those volunteers have been doing a great job, but it is a huge job. Until we, as a profession, provide the resources to hire professionals with expertise in these areas, we’re going to keep being surprised and unprepared.
  • We have spent decades demanding that the establishment appreciate the benefits of acupuncture, and also insisting that no one other than LAcs provide treatment. It’s ugly to sneer at the doors that have now opened. If we’re serious that Acupuncture should be accepted by the establishment and made widely available, and that the only qualified providers are LAcs, it’s on us to figure out a way to provide it.
  • It’s unknown how, or if, the United States will address our out-of-control health care spending. It is known that the problem is not just CEO compensation or administrative overhead. A system which rewards those who provide the most services is going to be expensive. It’s not sustainable to have “the system” pay more for acupuncture treatment than individuals could or would. We will be facing increasing limits on what third-party payers will cover. We need to spend more time preparing and less time whining about how unfair it is.

Over the years, the profession has given support to those advocating for greater participation in the system. Acupuncturists concerned that many benefits of East Asian medicine would be left behind, or that we’d regret our lost independence, didn’t get traction. We chose which wolf to feed. The future is here and we can’t go back.

Let’s think through our next steps, and be prepared for what we create.

 

 

The Last Acupuncture Observer Post?

The planet is burning, the country is splitting apart.

I can imagine the despair of the climate scientists. They sounded the alarm when there was time to change course. But those in power prioritized their own short term interests. The rest of us were powerless to make the big changes. And we remain mostly unwilling to suffer the discomfort that smaller (though still helpful) changes require. We take long hot showers, drive big cars, take cruises, crank the air-conditioning on hot days, and lament the loss of the natural world we know. Being really good at recycling isn’t enough.

In the grand scheme of things, the loss of a Profession isn’t as serious as the loss of cool summer evenings and Orangutans and New Orleans. The knowledge and wisdom of this medicine preceded Licensed Acupuncturists and will live on without us.

I’m no Greta Thunberg. But I will sound the alarm again, and hope that the Profession I love will change course before it’s too late.

  • We have created a growing demand for acupuncture. Patients want it, insurance companies want to include it in their offerings, governments – federal 1,state and local, want to provide it to their citizens. There are lots of jobs, and lots of practices available.
  • There are many Acupuncturists who are leaving the field.
  • There are many areas with no Acupuncturists at all.
  • Enrollment in entry-level Acupuncture programs is down more than 20% in the last five years.

It’s an odd combination. High demand, unfilled jobs, LAcs leaving the profession, and fewer people entering the profession.

Representatives from ACAOM and the NCCAOM, asked about the drop in school enrollment at the ASA conference2, chalked it up to “the economy” and the “overall drop in people attending graduate school” and the change in “employment goals” for “the current generation.” And, “as we have more jobs more people will see it as a viable profession.” In short, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

They aren’t being honest – maybe not with themselves, certainly not with us.

It’s simple. The investment required to become an LAc, and the education and training students receive, is disconnected from the job skills, jobs, and compensation available to most acupuncture school graduates.

People are spending four plus years in school, graduating with significant student debt, offered jobs that don’t match that investment, and without resources to start or purchase a practice. In some states even four years of education isn’t enough. Florida just added a requirement for training in injection therapy for licensure.

Meanwhile, most entry-level acupuncture jobs don’t require injection therapy or herbal skills. (Not necessary for Modern Acupuncture or most Community Acupuncture jobs, for example).

In order to pass Board exams, extensive study of TCM is needed, even though that system is not required to practice safely and competently, which is what licensing exams are supposed to test.3 The NCCAOM acknowledges the problem, but hasn’t offered a solution.

Existing LAcs spend a lot of time bitter that things aren’t better. Many believe that if only “the profession” fought harder they’d get the higher pay and monopoly on techniques they believe they deserve.

Now is the time to speak clearly.

  • The vast majority of LAcs will never be paid physician level salaries. We can spend more time in school, we can get more titles, we can all refuse to work for reimbursements we consider insufficient, and, still, average net incomes of even 80K are a long way off.
  • We cannot, in general, prevent others from using techniques we consider to be “ours.” 4
  • The higher the demand for acupuncture and the higher our expectations for compensation, the more quickly the system will shift to having non-LAcs provide acupuncture.
  • There is a bipartisan consensus that restrictive Occupational Licensing harms the economy.
  • We are vastly outnumbered by most of the professions we view as competition.
  • If you think that we haven’t been able to “protect the profession” because we haven’t fought hard enough you have not been involved and have no grounds on which to judge.

There are things we can do, powerful things within our control, that could help us survive. We must –

  • Streamline our schooling. The focus must be on competencies, not hours. Safe and competent practitioners can be trained in far less than 2000 hours. We know, because we used to do it all of the time.5
  • Minimize the expense of the necessary training. Much could be accomplished through distance education. Bring back apprenticeships which served us well for many generations (we can call them clinical internships, if we’re afraid of what the mainstream will think). Employers can provide additional post-graduate training in specific techniques and modalities.
  • Demand that the NCCAOM develop licensure exams that test minimal standards for safe and competent practice, not specific knowledge irrelevant to practice.6 The NCCAOM bears the responsibility of designing a JTA that supports the development of an appropriate exam. Particular settings or styles that want to do additional testing can chose to do so. Schools bear responsibility for assessing  knowledge of their particular traditions/lineages.
  • Protect licensure for everyone who has sufficient training in acupuncture, which includes teaching that all health providers have a duty to limit their practice to their own training and experience. Requiring all Acupuncturists to have additional training in herbs, or any other specific, optional, modality shall not be a requirement for licensure.
  • Understand that our success as a profession depends upon our having sufficient LAcs to provide treatment in a timely and affordable fashion in most communities in the US, not on whether the Cleveland Clinic has a few OMD’s on staff. We must provide resources to help and support those willing to practice in underserved areas.7
  • Drop the expectation that “the system” will pay us what we think we deserve. Everyone wants to pay less for health care – people, insurance companies, governments.

We must reclaim Acupuncture as a simple, straightforward interaction between a practitioner and a patient, and recreate the accessible path to licensure we once had. Otherwise, we are creating a future with fewer Acupuncturists, who may manage to pay for their extensive education and keep up with demand only by handing off patient care to minimally-trained assistants working for low wages.

Individual acupuncturists and our professional organizations must acknowledge that we have a problem. It may be a little uncomfortable, but we have the power to make changes that will, at least, delay the day when an Acupuncturist in the US is as rare as the critically endangered Sumatran Orangutan.8 It’s not too late.

 

Notes:

1) Please read this, and comment, on the CMS proposal! Deadline August 15!

2) The ASA did a great job with their first conference. Excellent speakers, well-organized, great facility. Very impressive right out of the starting gate.

3) “The sole purpose of a licensing examination is to identify persons who possess the minimum knowledge and experience necessary to perform tasks on the job safely and competently–not to select the “top” candidates or ensure the success of licensed persons. Therefore, licensing examinations are very different from academic or employment examinations. Academic examinations assess how well a person can define and comprehend terms and concepts. Employment examinations can rank order candidates who possess the qualifications for the job.” (from https://www.clearhq.org/resources/Licensure_examinations.htm)

4) Vermont recently deregulated auriculotherapy. Here’s an opinion from Washington state regarding Nurses and Acupuncture.

5) Other Professions have altered training and education in order to address worker shortages and minimize debt (which also encourages increased diversity). Acupuncturists in Nevada were finally able to bring their licensing requirements closer to what we find in other states.

6) My individual conversations with NCCAOM reps at the ASA conference didn’t move beyond quick chats in passing. I’ve got some hope that they’ll work to improve the recertification process. I’m less hopeful that there will be progress in the other areas in which I’ve expressed concerns. Meanwhile, a big congratulations to Mina Larson on her appointment as the next NCCAOM CEO. I know that she understands the challenges facing the profession.

7) Dealing with the shortage of rural providers.

8) Current population of the Sumatran Orangutan estimated at 14,613.

 

 

Dear NCCAOM

Dear Ms. Ward-Cook, NCCAOM Board of Directors, and NCCAOM staff:

The selection of Chief Executive Officer is a critical time for an organization. Continuity might be the primary goal when a business is thriving. When things haven’t been going well, the best choice might be someone with a fresh perspective and a willingness to shake things up.

As you know, the number of people entering the profession has dropped significantly. Without a change, the growing demand for acupuncture will increasingly be met by people who are not Licensed Acupuncturists. The profession we have worked so hard to build is at risk of becoming little more than a footnote, even while acupuncture itself becomes widely accepted. We must face this issue head on. Every decision made by our organizations must consider which choice supports growth of the profession, and which will contribute to our demise.

With such a small profession anything that divides us, or limits opportunities, is problematic. So is anything that inflates the cost of our education or entry to the profession. These all increase the odds that an interested person will choose another profession, or, having entered the profession, will struggle to succeed.

Over the years, the NCCAOM has made a number of decisions that have, in fact, divided us, limited us, and complicated educational choices and entry to the profession.

I hereby request you select a CEO committed to change, so that the NCCAOM can be an organization that unites, and that removes any barriers for entry to the profession that are not necessary for the protection of the public.

Your new Chief Executive Officer should –

  • Understand that it is in our best interest that everyone who passes the NCCAOM exams finds it easy and inexpensive to obtain and maintain their NCBA (Diplomate) status. In the absence of any findings of unsafe practice, active status should renew automatically, and at a minimal cost. With such a small number of practitioners, we can’t afford to exclude any competent and safe practitioners from employment or licensure. As it is, significant numbers of Licensed Acupuncturists are excluded from job opportunities even after passing the NCCAOM exams. The current system of CEU verification is complicated, and has no measurable impact on practitioner quality.
  • Develop exams that test only what is necessary for safe practice, focusing on crucial tasks and red flags. No particular lineage has been shown to be safer or more effective than any other. Testing requiring knowledge of one specific lineage adds to the cost of an education, complicates school choice, divides the profession, and increases NCCAOM expenses, all without benefit to the public. Since knowledge of a particular lineage is not required for competence, a Job Task Analysis focused on knowledge of a lineage is flawed and must be redesigned.
  • Fight any attempt to exclude any Licensed Acupuncturist from practicing to the limits of their knowledge and experience. The NCCAOM should never support efforts to limit, for example, the use of herbs to any subset of acupuncturists. They should be clear – the herb credential is optional, and acupuncturists without that credential should not be disadvantaged compared to all other individuals in a jurisdiction. Using resources gathered from Diplomates to support efforts to limit their practice feeds resentment and division. The addition of requirements for the herbal credential limits opportunities for practitioners, increases barriers to practice, and increases educational costs.
  • Ensure that the NCCAOM changes policies or procedures only after extensive consultation with all potentially affected parties, allowing us to minimize and mitigate harm. Changes that lead to additional costs or stress to students, schools, and licensing boards work against success and growth.
  • Prioritize execution. User friendly and functional portals are important. So is accurate information. Errors (such as incorrectly reporting licensure requirements) can have a huge impact on educational choices and employment decisions. For practitioners who have a choice, a frustrating hour spent fighting with the recredentialing process can be a deciding factor in whether or not they maintain active status.
  • Keep the focus on the core of the NCCAOM’s mission – ensuring the safety of the public through credentialing Acupuncturists. Lobbying costs money. Taking a position on a matter of politics leads to division and disappointment. The NCCAOM needs to minimize expenses for Diplomates, not use our money to fund activities that we may not support.
  • Leave education to the schools. When the NCCAOM develops educational programs, such as content for the CHCS COQ, it increases concern that the NCCAOM could one day move to make this certificate mandatory due to self-interest. Likewise, the approval system for CEU’s adds to the cost of classes and complicates maintaining certification. This system has no discernible benefit to the public, and stands in marked contrast to the practice of many other credentialing bodies.

I’ve held NCCAOM certification for the past 25 years. I have spent decades as a Board member – of my State Association, State Regulatory Advisory Board, and even the AAAOM. I know that many of my colleagues are quick to demand action, resistant to reconsidering their positions on issues, and eager to place blame. I know it’s frustrating to work hard to give people what they want, only to be criticized for your efforts.

I write now as a Licensed Acupuncturist, and do not speak for any other group or organization.

The existence of a national credential was a great help during our efforts to establish licensure in Virginia in the early 90’s. Over the years I have defended the organization countless times. But when I last renewed my board certification I had to grit my teeth.

As it stands, I’m no longer clear that the NCCAOM is a net benefit for the profession. I don’t trust you to look out for my best interests, even though I’ve been a Diplomate for all these years.

I would like to be able to defend you again. I’d like to know that you had my back. That my fees weren’t being used exclude me from practice. That lapsed status wasn’t keeping colleagues out of the profession. That your exam didn’t require people to learn a lot of information they’ll never need to practice safely. That my fees weren’t being used to fund futile turf wars. That the information you provided could be trusted. That your systems worked. And that when concerns were brought to your attention you didn’t deny or evade or misrepresent what happened.

It’s time for a CEO who understands the changing landscape, and understands that without a change in direction there will be no profession left to protect. For the sake of the profession, and the future of all of us associated with it, I hope that you choose wisely.

 

Sincerely,

Elaine Wolf Komarow, LAc, Dipl.Ac. (NCCAOM)

 

 

Dry Needling – Winning, and Losing.

The Battle of Cold Harbor, in May – June 1864, was one of the last victories for the Confederates in the Civil War. (Or, as it was referred to in the South, the War for Southern Independence.) The victory did not change the outcome of the war.

In January, a state judge ruled that Dry Needling is not within scope for Physical Therapists in Florida. This ruling was proclaimed a great victory and widely celebrated on Facebook and here, in Acupuncture Today.

FSOMA won in Florida, because, as appears in the ruling, “A simple reading of the physical therapy scope of practice statute, section 486.021(11), in light of the definition of “acupuncture” in section 457.102(1), makes plain that dry needling is not within the statutory scope of practice for PTs in the State of Florida. The Board had no basis for moving forward with the Proposed Rule.”

FSOMA did not win because the FDA limits the use of filiform needles to LAcs, there aren’t standards for the practice of dry needling, the physical therapists aren’t adequately trained, dry needling would harm patients, dry needling is “cultural misappropriation,” or any of the other many arguments made in Florida and elsewhere.

This ruling sets no precedent for any other state because it is based on the definition of Acupuncture and the scope of PT practice as found in Florida law. If state level rulings did set a precedent in other jurisdictions, FSOMA would likely have lost. We’ve lost in more states than we’ve won.

Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this from that Acupuncture Today article, or all those celebratory posts on Facebook.

Meanwhile, we’ve lost a significant and costly battle. One which should never have been fought. This loss hasn’t yet made the news.

The North Carolina Physical Therapy Association recently announced a settlement agreement, in which the North Carolina Acupuncture Licensing Board would pay the NCPTA a six-figure settlement and agree that all current and future members would stop sending cease-and-desist letters to physical therapists who offer dry needling, and would honor the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision that dry needling is within the scope of practice of physical therapy.

This loss should surprise no one. The NCALB incurred significant legal debt persisting in a battle that no one outside of the profession thought they could win. And they attracted negative attention from lawmakers in the process. Why, oh why, did they do this?

I’ve stopped hoping that yet another blog post will change our behavior. Will a six-figure settlement? How will the NCALB continue to function without resources?

Even the few battles we’ve won could later be lost. Scopes of health professions can change via legislation. Physical Therapists outnumber us in every state. The trend is away from scope “monopolies” – understandable when we need to improve access to services and reduce health care spending. (Consider the history of scope and Advanced Practice Nurses, Optometrists, Social Workers, and Dental Therapists.)

Both the Acupuncturists and the Physical Therapists might refer to this multi-year hostility as The War of Defending the Profession, or The War of Protecting our Patients. Undoubtedly, each side has been motivated by the belief that they were doing what was right. But, war is costly. And, as the smaller and poorer profession, we have suffered greatly for our few victories.

In the past few years we’ve done a good job increasing the demand or and interest in acupuncture. But the number of people entering the acupuncture profession is dropping. In the vast majority of the country we don’t have enough practitioners to meet the need. Meanwhile, qualified and experienced practitioners can’t practice because of regulatory loopholes that seem to benefit only the NCCAOM. The NCCAOM is looking for a new Executive Director, and it’s critical that we be involved in the selection process. Acupuncturists can’t pay off their student loans while others argue for additional educational requirements. Our schools are closing. We’re increasingly participating in the insurance system, increasingly concerned that the system doesn’t support our work, and increasingly, getting into insurance-related legal trouble.

It’s past time to give up the war. There is no one person who can proclaim the end to hostilities. General Lee could only surrender the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1965 1865.* Other Generals continued to fight. I’m sure some state association somewhere will continue to beat the drums of war, insisting that we fight on. What a shame.

We have far better things we could be doing with our time and our money. Let’s.

(Yes, I’m so tired of writing about dry needling I studied up on some Civil War history to spice things up.)

* When I first published this I goofed and wrote 1965. When it was pointed out (thanks astute reader!) I quickly corrected it. But I’ve been thinking. The consequences of the Civil War are still very much with us. Freedom Summer was in 1963, for example. When I see suppliers marketing that they don’t sell needles to PT’s, and LAcs boycotting suppliers who don’t make that promise, well, it’s heartbreaking. The sooner we reconcile the better. And, yup, some LAcs see me as a Profession Traitor for saying this.

Updates: Education, Dry Needling, Professional Organizations and Associations

Tri-State College of Acupuncture has lost accreditation and closed. Founder Mark Seem was unwilling or unable to save the program.

It’s a loss for the students, and for all practitioners and patients.

In the early development of the U.S. acupuncture profession the modern TCM lineage was primed to dominate. Mark Seem at Tri-State, and Bob Duggan and Diane Connelly at The Traditional Acupuncture Institute fought to maintain acupuncture diversity and the strong curriculum at those two schools enabled other traditions to gain a foothold.

Now Tri-State is closed and the school formerly known as The Traditional Acupuncture Institute (The Maryland University of Integrative Health) has little in common with its earlier iteration. The NCCAOM is increasingly powerful. Their TCM-focused exam controls entry to the profession. The outlook for non-TCM traditions is not good.

On December 7th the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the legality of the Board of Physical Therapy’s decision that dry needling falls within the scope of physical therapy in the state.

If you believe that our future success depends upon what other professions do with filiform needles, it’s bad news. It’s also bad news for the NCALB, which previously reported legal debt of $150,000. And it’s terrible news for those named in the antitrust suit Henry vs. NCALB, which was on hold awaiting this decision. The odds are not in their favor.

If you’re committed to continuing the fight with PT’s, please read the ruling.

A recent letter from the Utah Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine reports that the group has no paying members and has been “permanently dissolved until further notice.”

Perhaps the association’s 2018 effort to require the NCCAOM Herb credential for new graduates who wish to practice in Utah was not a big membership motivator? If not, why did they pursue the change? At the time, the NCCAOM cited practitioner support as the driving factor in their participation.

(The NCCAOM now insists they took no position on this issue. Yet they have refused to disavow the letter they distributed showing their support.)

In the “dissolution letter” we read, “There is important work to done and we have the full support of the NCCAOM in our effort.” Who is the we if there are no paid members? What does the NCCAOM support (and why)?

Pay attention! I don’t believe the plan is to make entry into the profession easier or less expensive.

In early 2019 I’ll be writing about Modern Acupuncture, developments at the NCCAOM, and trends in the profession. Until then, I wish you all a peaceful and restful holiday season.

Safety: Dry Needling and Acupuncture

We worry about the public’s well-being.

The excellent safety record of Licensed Acupuncturists is part of our “brand” and has been a focus in the fight against the use of filiform needles by those without our extensive training.

Are we walking our talk?

At a recent professional gathering a representative of a malpractice insurance company recited a terrifying list of problems that turned into insurance claims against acupuncturists: a double pneumothorax, infections from needles manufactured in unsterile conditions, broken bones from tui na, burns from heat lamps. The message – Buy Malpractice Insurance!

On Facebook, Acupuncturists regularly look for support after a patient reports a post-treatment issue.The equivocations quickly pour in: Is that really where you needled? Are they on medication? It’s a healing reaction. Did you have them sign a waiver? There is such a thing as a spontaneous pneumothorax….

Yes. Malpractice insurance is a good idea. And sometimes post-treatment issues aren’t treatment related. But the lack of concern about the problems, and the lack of interest in how they might be avoided, calls into question our supposed devotion to public safety. Not only are we advised to never admit responsibility to our patients, we’re encouraged to never admit it to ourselves.

In 1999 The Institute of Medicine released a report, To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System.

“The committee’s approach was to emphasize that “error” that resulted in patient harm was not a property of health care professionals’ competence, good intentions, or hard work. Rather, the safety of care—defined as “freedom from accidental injury” (p. 16)—is a property of a system of care, whether a hospital, primary care clinic, nursing home, retail pharmacy, or home care, in which specific attention is given to ensuring that well-designed processes of care prevent, recognize, and quickly recover from errors so that patients are not harmed.”

Lisa Rohleder writes –

“It’s impossible to effectively promote safety when we don’t know where WE are going wrong. An important part of developing a culture of safety is to establish, as much as possible, a compassionate, neutral, and curious attitude toward safety errors and adverse events. Nobody wants to make an error (either large or small) or have a patient suffer an adverse event — and yet anybody who practices acupuncture for long enough will experience those things. Acupuncture is a practice that involves humans on both ends of the needle, which means sometimes, unfortunately, things will go wrong.”

“Acupuncture legislation and regulation are not the same as creating a culture of safety. Training cannot ensure that the people who receive it will never play a role in an adverse event. A culture of safety requires an active, ongoing, self-reflective, cooperative process.”

An adverse event does not necessarily mean that a mistake was made. It means that something didn’t turn out as we would have liked. It can happen when a practitioner does everything right. The more we know about what happened, the more we can confront and minimize the risks involved in treatment.

But we can’t know what happened without collecting the data. And we can’t collect the data if 1) there is no mechanism to report adverse events and 2) people are afraid to share about and discuss adverse events.

Until recently, no acupuncture organizations have been interested in collecting such data. Alarmingly, in the name of acupuncture safety, one shadowy acupuncture group has created what it calls an Adverse Event Reporting system for the sole purpose of weaponizing reports of adverse events related to dry needling. The data are not anonymous. (The board of the group collecting the data is.) The goal is not to improve the safety of a practice, but to attack competitors. It makes it more difficult to develop a culture of safety.

Finally, we have the opportunity to participate in a voluntary and anonymous database for reporting adverse events in acupuncture, developed with the goal of promoting safety.

Some questions and answers from POCA’s materials about the AERD they created –

Why Should All LAcs Voluntarily Report Adverse Events and Errors?

POCA created this AERD for ourselves but it is designed to be used by anyone who provides acupuncture services and anyone who is a consumer of acupuncture services. We are hoping that many L.Acs will participate, and that other acupuncture school clinics will want to join us in collecting safety data.

Using a voluntary and anonymous AERD is a way for the acupuncture profession to encourage a culture of safety. AERDs are standard in other healthcare professions and it is notable that the acupuncture profession has not had one; that’s a problem that needs to be fixed, especially in light of acupuncturists’ practicing in integrative medical settings.

 Why Did the POCA Cooperative Create an AERD?

POCA loves data, and collecting our own safety data has been a topic of discussion in the co-op for years. Having POCA Tech as a resource to manage an Adverse Events Reporting Database, along with getting support from Dr. Suzanne Morrissey (medical anthropologist and professor of anthropology at Whitman College), allowed us to make an AERD a reality.

Why Voluntary and Anonymous?

Research suggests that it’s possible to collect better safety data, and thus do a better job of improving safety practices, when reporting adverse events and errors is voluntary and anonymous. Nonconfidential and mandatory reporting systems may discourage practitioners from disclosing adverse events and errors.

The goal is to focus on safety practices and systems, not on errors made by individuals.

Here’s the place to report adverse events.

Additionally, membership in POCA provides many excellent perks, whether you provide community acupuncture or not. I encourage you to check it out. Thank you, POCA, for establishing the AERD, and Lisa Rohleder, for starting this discussion. This post borrows heavily from her writing. Any errors, however, are mine alone.

 

 

Second Night – Census Time!

How many Acupuncturists are there?

As we strive to increase opportunities for acupuncturists, we should know if we have the workforce to fill the demand we’re trying create. If we don’t have the workforce available, others will step up to fill the need. That may still be a win for the population able to receive acupuncture from other providers, but it won’t be the win the profession has been working for.

The new Standard Occupational Code with the BLS may, eventually, give us a good sense of our numbers. In the meantime, different sources give wildly different numbers of our strength. The NCCAOM, relying on state figures and their active Diplomate data gives a count of under 20K. Others who have gathered date from all of the states (no easy task) have been presenting a figure of almost 35K (Fan AY, Faggert S. Number of Licensed Acupuncturists and Educational Institutions in the United States in Early of 2015. J Integrat Med. 2017 September; Epub ahead of print. doi:10.1016/S2095-4964(17)60371-6).

I’ve historically used the numbers provided by Acupuncture Today. They’ve had the resources to purchase mailing lists and the financial incentive, at least in the days of paper publications, not to send multiple copies to the same practitioner, even if they were licensed in multiple states. I’m not sure their numbers are as accurate in the days of their digital edition, but they are currently showing about 28K LAcs.

In my experience a significant number of practitioners are licensed in multiple states, and a not insignificant number keep an active license when they are rarely or never treating. When getting a license is complicated and expensive, we don’t let them go lightly. For instance, if there were actually 25,000 practitioners, and 20% are licensed in two states, 5% in 3, and 2% in 4, there would be 34,000 state issued licenses.

(To put the numbers in perspective, there are 456,389 primary care physicians in the US. And a lot of patient care is still provided by nurses, PA’s, and other providers.)

Whether there are 20,000 of us or 34,000, it’s a small number to serve the population we hope to serve. And if we’ve got inaccurate numbers we may be writing checks with our ego that our bodies can’t cash.

The Hanukkah story celebrates a miracle – one night’s worth of oil lasted for eight nights. Maybe we’ll have a workforce miracle too. But it would be better if we knew how much “oil” we were starting with. And if we used that information when deciding where to focus our limited resources.

 

 

Dry Needling Updates for LAcs

Not again! Yes, again.

[If nothing else, read: NC AG Opinion, NC Order and Opinion, Henry v NCALB, and TX AG Opinion. If you have an opinion on dry needling, and you want it to be an informed opinion, these documents are necessary reading.]

North Carolina has been a major DN battlefield. It’s been a rallying cry for strong action elsewhere. How’s it going?

Not well.

Some history –

In 2011, the North Carolina Acupuncture Licensing Board (NCALB) requested an opinion from the NC Attorney General regarding the North Carolina Board of Physical Therapy Examiners’ (NCPTE) decision that Dry Needling was within the PT scope of practice. The AG opinion was that the NCPTE could make this determination if it conducted appropriate rule-making.

Subsequent to that decision, but before the NCPTE concluded the rule-making process, the NCALB sent “cease-and-desist” letters to PT’s practicing dry needling, accusing them of illegal activity. And, in 2015, the NCALB filed a complaint, demanding a ruling that DN was the unlawful practice of acupuncture, and insisting that the PT Board inform its licensees that DN was not within the scope of practice of PT’s.

Given the AG opinion it’s no surprise that the NCPTE (and individual PT’s who had received the cease-and-desist letters) weren’t ready to roll over for the NCALB.

On August 2nd, the Court issued this NC Order and Opinion affirming the NCPTE’s decision that dry needling is within scope for PT’s, and that it is distinct from acupuncture.

(Again, please read the documents. They are critical to understanding why our arguments aren’t leading to more wins.)

In January the court ruled that Henry v NCALB could proceed. This is not good news for the NCALB and its members, who may be found (subsequent to the NC Board of Dental Examiners Supreme Court ruling) guilty of antitrust violations.

My top takeaways —

  • Don’t request an AG opinion if you won’t accept the answer. (A colleague recently wrote that he’s gearing up to “CRUSH dry needling” in Texas. Here’s the Texas AG opinion.)
  • If it’s determined that a PT Board has the power to pursue rulemaking on dry needling, we should make a good faith effort to offer respectful input. We should focus on minimizing risk to the public, while accepting that we don’t get to call the shots. Obstructing the regulatory process or making unrealistic demands puts the public at greater risk. (Also, we should make well-informed arguments. Insisting that dry needling is outside of PT scope after it’s been ruled otherwise, for example, doesn’t help our case.)
  • Don’t use dud ammunition. NCASI and others still argue, for example, that it’s illegal for anyone other than acupuncturists to possess acupuncture needles. The court wrote (highlighting mine)

¶¶ 16–20.) In particular, the Acupuncture Board contends that the needles used in dry needling “must carry a specific FDA warning as required under 21 CFR §880.109(b)(1), stating ‘Caution: Federal law restricts this device to sale by or on the order of a [qualified practitioner of acupuncture licensed by the law of the State in which he practices to use or order the use of the device.]’” (Petition ¶ 19) (brackets
and emphasis in original).
50. The Petition takes glaring liberties with the cited regulation, however. The full text of the regulation requires medical devices, such as the solid filament needles at issue here, to include a label bearing: The symbol statement “RX only” or “℞ only” or the statement “Caution: Federal law restricts this device to sale by or on the order of a ____”, the blank to be filled with the word “physician”, “dentist”, “veterinarian”, or with the descriptive designation of any other practitioner licensed by the law of the State in which the practitioner practices to use or order the use of the device[.]
21 C.F.R. § 801.109(b)(1). As such, the cited regulation does not support the Acupuncture Board’s argument that the needles used in dry needling are “medical devices” only for use by acupuncturists.

  • Our professions’ news sources are full of misleading, inaccurate, and incomplete information. This AT article, this NGAOM post, and this blog post, are inaccurate – repeating the false needle argument, misstating the finding of the NC rules review commission, and/or misrepresenting what the NCPTE told licensees. We need to do better.
  • Long-term, there may be a few states where PT’s are not permitted to do dry needling, just as there are a few states still not open to LAcs. There is already PT DN in most states. Making the argument that dry needling is acupuncture, as the NCCAOM did in their recent statement, is a terrible mistake. Do we want the PT next door to advertise “now offering acupuncture”? Our statements encourage them to do so. We need to adjust to the current reality.

In 2013 I wrote Imagine, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I can still only imagine where we’d be if we had spent the last four years doing those 11 things, instead of what we’ve done (and continue to do). Let’s stop doing what we’ve done. We can get something better if we understand what’s gotten us here.

 

 

 

Accomplishments of the Acupuncture Profession

We know acupuncture can treat pain and chronic illness, assist with recovery from addiction, increase fertility, and help people manage stress (just to start). Acupuncturists know it would be good if more people could get more acupuncture.

Many dedicated individuals have devoted significant qi to increase insurance coverage, to add acupuncture to Medicare covered services, and to bring acupuncture to hospitals and clinics. All with the hope of increasing access.

Other practitioners are committed to gaining mainstream respect and acceptance to further the goal of greater access. They’ve published research, increased training and credentialing requirements, and fought to keep others from using acupuncture techniques without that training and credentialing.

Our “return on investment” has not been great.

We’re still a lot of money and many years away from Medicare inclusion. How much time and energy gets taken from clients to deal with insurance? How many potential patients have meaningful coverage, and how long will that last? Increased training and credentialing and variations in requirements from state to state slows entry into the field and increases expenses, further diminishing our political strength. In areas with few LAcs, efforts to block other professionals from utilizing pain-relieving acupuncture techniques leaves the public with no access at all.

We’re not using our qi efficiently. Our efforts haven’t done much to shorten the path between most practitioners who want to treat, and most people who want treatment.

It’s motivating, helpful, and informative to read a book illustrating the power of a direct path between practitioner and patient. Acupuncture Points are Holes, is a great read.

It’s several books in one: a captivating personal story, an exploration of the process of establishing an acupuncture practice, and an analysis of some common limitations in acupuncture training. It examines the focus required to keep the path between practitioner and patient clear. The book and appendices contain lots of direct, straightforward, easy-to-read help for you and your business, whether it’s a POCA clinic or not.

The author’s decision to directly address the impediments that keep people in need from accessing acupuncture led to: adoption of a practice model which was then shared with others, establishment of a Co-op to support the system and interested practitioners, and, as of 2014 , an affordable acupuncture school to train future POCA practitioners. The 158 POCA clinics that answered a 2016 survey provided 880,596 treatments. One three-location group sees over 8000 unique patients each year. So far, POCA Tech students have a 100% pass rate on NCCAOM Exam Modules.

All this in less than twenty years.That’s a lot of accomplishments.

Getting the book will be an excellent return on investment. Get the e-book here, the paperback here or here. All proceeds go to POCA Tech.