NCCAOM Issues – Here’s a Real-Life Example.

Last week’s post generated lots of feedback – in the comments and elsewhere. Several people reached  out to me with stories about how their professional success was negatively impacted by NCCAOM policies or procedures.

An individual trained to be an acupuncturist wrote:

I graduated from an acupuncture school outside the country in November 2017. The NCCAOM requires that those trained outside the US must have their documents evaluated by a third party in order to apply and sit for the NCCAOM exams. As of November 2017 the NCCAOM only accepts documents evaluated by the International Consultants of Delaware (ICD).

In December 2017 I began my long ordeal with this organization. After 8 months of emails and phone calls going unanswered or minimally responded to with a form letter, I contacted NCCAOM to inform them that the company they were requiring me and others to use had appalling business practices that were preventing me from taking the NCCAOM exams, applying for a state license and starting a job that was being held for me.

Happily, I did get immediate help from the contact at NCCAOM. They intervened on my behalf and took my educational documents for their own review. However, I was then notified that I still needed ICD evaluation as the NCCAOM could not approve a “non-traditional” transcript. They also said they were not familiar with the school.

The school I attended has been graduating American students for over 15 years, and many have returned, successfully sat for the NCCAOM exams, and obtained licensure in the US. However, now it seems that the format of the provided transcripts are unacceptable; nothing has changed from the school’s perspective.  The only suggestions offered by the NCCAOM are not feasible, such as giving them the names and other personal information of past American students in order to compare what would be identical transcripts, my completing a 2 year apprenticeship (not acceptable for licensure in my state), or the school rewriting their program.

It has now been 18 months since I started this process and am no closer to being allowed to even apply for the NCCAOM exams. It seems incredible to me, and many others, that the format of transcripts, paperwork really, is all that is keeping me from fulfilling my dream. The NCCAOM has nothing to lose by allowing me to take the exams only the gain of my $1500. If I fail, then that is on me.

P.K.

 

The LAc who wants to hire P.K. wrote:

Dear NCCAOM,

As a licensed acupuncturist in practice since 1995, I have been saddened to watch the new generation of acupuncturists struggle with ballooning student loan debt and escalating practice requirements. The combination is eating away at our numbers. This acutely affects the public, our clinics, and those of us hoping to retire some day and pass our clinics on.

As an employer, I am immensely frustrated, because your practices are blocking me from hiring.

P. K. has been my clinic’s office manager, front desk staffer and clinical assistant for more than 3 1/2 years.  She is bright, committed, compassionate and skilled.  She excelled in her three years as a student at a well regarded European acupuncture school.  She comes highly recommended by the school’s president. She has been a delight and a pleasure to work with, continually exceeding my expectations, and our patients are very fond of her.

Meanwhile, I am busy, frequently over booked, and have been looking to add to my clinical staff, with no luck, for quite some time. There is a shortage of licensed acupuncturists in my area interested in a high volume, low fee, community style of practice. I offered P. a position as a community acupuncturist in early 2018, contingent on her obtaining a Massachusetts acupuncture license, and she accepted. Since then, I have been waiting, watching as she does what she can to obtain licensure, while the NCCAOM has been a roadblock in that process.

P. has spelled out in her own narrative the details of her efforts to get approved to take your exam.  When I reached out to you on this matter, we were asked to provide information on previous grads of her school who have sat for the NCCAOM exam — information that neither of us has any access to, but which no doubt, resides in your own files.

Consequently, P. has been left in limbo, with no path forward to practice in the US.  My clinic remains understaffed, and I have no ability to hire the person I’ve chosen, who is best prepared to succeed in this position.  Our state is unable to add a skilled acupuncturist to our numbers. It is all very frustrating, and sad.

A final thought — the whole idea of a licensing exam is to evaluate whether or not a graduate is prepared to enter the field.  If you trust your exam’s ability to function as it was designed, blocking graduates from taking the exam makes no sense.

D. D., Lic Acupuncturist

 

I (The Acupuncture Observer) do believe that requiring a combination of education and examination is the best way to increase the odds that a licensee will be a safe and effective practitioner. Folks with good study skills and an ability to memorize can pass exams without being able to apply what they know in practice. The NCCAOM exams can’t test whether a candidate can identify the signs used in diagnosis, for example. And, the schools have an incentive to say all of their students know enough to be practitioners.

I acknowledge that, for better or worse, the NCCAOM currently requires graduation from an ACAOM-accredited school, or an overseas equivalent. And that means they have to have some method of determining equivalence.

And, yet, is there no solution here? Is it really better for the public, or the profession, that a business and a community goes without the help it needs, while a well-educated and well-trained individual who wants to fill that need is sidelined, with an expensive education wasted?

I think the NCCAOM can and should do better. If they can’t, we need to allow another path to licensure.

 

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.

A Feature or a Bug?

Quote

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.

 

 

 

We have met the Enemy

It’s not paranoia if they are really out to get you.

Our siege mentality is understandable. Doc Hay was charged with practicing medicine without a license in the early 1900’s, as was Miriam Lee in 1974. In some places we’re still seeking legal recognition of our right to practice. It’s not unusual to read that acupuncture is quackery.

So it’s not terribly surprising when multiple participants in an official government meeting announce that your practice is a danger to the public and that the NCCAOM Acupuncture credential is insufficient. It’s not the first time we’ve heard that it would be better for the public if we were excluded.

But it’s different when the people saying these things are Acupuncturists.

It’s shocking. And upsetting. And bad for the profession.

We complain about PT’s, Medical Acupuncturists, insurance companies and even the perceived disrespect of some of our clients. But those groups aren’t building coalitions to restrict our ability to practice, or to put hurdles in the path of new practitioners. I can imagine the outrage and the calls to action if they did.

Instead, it’s Acupuncturists who are on the record (warning audio autoplay) slandering colleagues and attempting to slow growth of the profession.

Our safety record and our well-established and generally respected educational and credentialing systems don’t seem to matter. Nor are these Acupuncturists concerned about our small numbers or student debt.

Why is this happening? One school that is concerned about student debt, accessibility, and the growth of the profession, asked ACAOM and NCCAOM to reconsider the hourly requirements for acupuncture education and sitting the credentialing exams. There was no move to lower standards (read more here) or change competencies, only to use the same hourly requirements that served our teachers and most experienced practitioners so well.

ACAOM hasn’t responded to the proposal, and NCCAOM did not respond favorably (NCCAOM Response Ltr to POCA Board 11-9-17 Final with signatures.doc). But members of Utah’s Acupuncture Advisory Board and the Utah Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine were so upset by POCA Tech’s request that they launched a preemptive strike, moving to require the NCCAOM herb credential of all practitioners, whether or not they want to use herbs.

Listen, and ask yourself – how does this help our future?

By the way –

The participants’ claim that this is a clarification of existing law is “alternative fact.” The evidence shows that the Utah action is in direct response to the POCA Tech proposal, and the representative of the Department of Professional Licensing makes clear that existing law would not support this action.

In a prior meeting a board member insisted that there is no need to require specific education or curriculum for practitioners who use injection therapy, since acupuncturists know their limits. The same board member argues here that all practitioners need to obtain the herb credential. (The board member performs injection therapy.)

The exemption of those already licensed works to undermine opposition to changes like this. Don’t be fooled – increasing debt for the next generation of practitioners isn’t good for our future, even if it doesn’t impact your ability to practice.

The Advisory Board and the Utah Association, with the help of the NCCAOM, promoted the Board’s proposed changes. The letter (UtahNCCAOMletter) they distributed is inaccurate. For example, a growing number of states are not requiring the herbal exam of all practitioners, and acupuncture and Chinese Medicine have not always been inextricably linked.

A letter written by a professional association, signed by the Chair of the Advisory Board, and distributed and supported by the NCCAOM (which would benefit financially from the change) raises significant ethical and good governance concerns.

The NCCAOM’s message in the February meeting – that they defer to the will of the profession – is a questionable position for a credentialing agency. It also differs from their position in cases where the will of the profession was for changes not in NCCAOM’s interests, such as a state removing the requirement to maintain active Diplomate status.

There’s good news – the Utah Advisory Board can’t add a requirement for the herbal credential via regulation.

There’s bad news – the parties involved seem eager to pursue legislation to make this change.

There’s terrible news – the enemy is us. It isn’t the PT’s, MD’s, or insurance companies undermining Acupuncturists. It’s Acupuncturists.

 

Fourth Night – Service

Join your state acupuncture association.

At least once in your professional life, serve on the Board of that association, or, serve on the Board of another professional group, or serve on a committee that serves the profession, or serve in a regulatory position.

If you support other groups, like AWB, SAR, POCA, join them too. But not instead.

Join your state association even if you are thinking “but they haven’t done anything that I agree with” or “they don’t do anything at all” or “they are a bunch of a-holes who actively work against my interests” or, “I already support these other organizations that actually do the stuff I care about.”

Trust me, when I get a newsletter telling me that a top priority for my state association is continuing the fight against dry needling, I struggle to write that membership check. (Because the fight has sucked up our resources and poisoned relations with potential allies and there is no chance we’ll win.)

Why give your hard-earned and too often insufficient money to a group that you believe uses it poorly?

  1. Membership organizations are designed to represent the needs and desires of their membership. To think “I’ll join when they stop doing stupid stuff I hate” is asking them to put the preferences of non-members over members, and that’s unreasonable.
  2. Health care is regulated by the states, and the state association has some degree of power (it varies from state to state) over regulations, legislation, and appointments. It’s good to have a say in how they’ll use that power.
  3. The policies of our best hope for a productive, consensus-building, national organization meant to serve all LAcs, the ASA, are determined by a Council, the membership of which is determined by state associations.
  4. There aren’t that many of us. Even if state associations have 25% of their state’s practitioners as members (optimistic – though maybe our lower percentage is related to misperceptions in how many LAcs practice in the state) that’s still a small number. It’s hard to do much if your organization is supported by and represents fifty people.

You should serve on a Board at least once because –

  1. The experience of: working to give people what they want, balancing the demands of those who want very different things, explaining that there is no shortage of good ideas just resources, explaining (again) why the association can’t provide a health insurance plan, giving people what they’ve asked for only to find out they weren’t really going to take advantage of it (you all said you wanted inexpensive monthly CEU classes, but only two of you came) – is educational. It builds compassion and understanding for those who serve.
  2. It will teach you a lot about regulation, legislation, and how some of what people insist we could do if we just FOUGHT, is not actually doable, even when everyone involved fights their hardest.
  3. Numbers again. A fifty person organization, with a five person board, and three committees of three people means about a third of the members have to be serving at any given time.
  4. People usually become willing to make the sacrifice of serving when they get worked up about something. They feel strongly about a particular issue. It’s good to have balance so one strong leader doesn’t shut out other voices.

Now, for my friends who are serving –

  1. Thank You!
  2. Working for consensus is good. Compromise is good. Listen to the concerns of all of your colleagues and don’t automatically respond with the party line. Be thoughtful.
  3. We’d have an easier time getting people to serve if Board members didn’t end up burdened with tons of administrative work. $$ for political action is important, but let’s not neglect the benefits of $ for organizational support.
  4. Criticism is not the same as negativity. Some positions and actions are deserving of criticism. If we don’t dismiss it, we can learn.

 

And, for all of us — let’s not take our differences personally.

 

(It’s not dark yet. I made it.)

 

(Note to self, 8 posts in 8 days requires advance planning. Not a good spur of the moment project.)

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Continuous Improvement and Feedback

It’s difficult to make things better when you don’t know what’s wrong.

I’m glad when a client lets me know that something isn’t working. It gives me a chance to change things, or help them find something that better meets their needs. Things are better for both of us when we’re honest.

That’s why I’m having trouble moving on from a column that equates discussion about our problems with treason (“giving the other professions … the ammunition they need to diminish acupuncture”) and so many of the responses to the Gainful Employment regulations. (Here’s a selection — ACAOM gainful employment word, Acupuncture school response, and the ASA’s response.)

The cost of an acupuncture education, how that cost compares to future income, and the likelihood of that income being sufficient to pay off loans in a timely fashion while also sustaining oneself, are critical issues for the profession. Welcoming feedback from those who have “been there and done that” is necessary to guide improvement.

The Gainful Employment rules require transparency and accountability from for-profit career colleges. The regulations don’t close schools. They may, in time, keep students from receiving federal Title IV student aid to attend programs that don’t meet the accountability standards.

Although the impacted schools insist that the education they provide is a good value, they are correct to fear that, absent federal guarantees, students will have trouble coming up with enough money to attend.

Ideally, their concern would translate into concerted efforts to gather data about their graduates’ experiences and provide it to prospective students. They’d focus on what could be done to reduce expenses for students, and develop programs to ease those first few years post-graduation when they acknowledge income may be low. They’d make sure that all prospective students had an understanding of the economic realities of life as an LAc before collecting that first tuition payment.

Instead, when I read the responses from our schools and organizations, I hear, mainly, this isn’t fair, it’s not our fault, and it shouldn’t apply to us.

They argue that the responsibility is on prospective practitioners to educate themselves about the field and educational options, but also say that the data available doesn’t reflect the true picture. (And they fail to mention that before the Gainful Employment rules required it, they paid little to no attention to what happened to their students post-graduation.)

Try comparing the earnings of graduates from various programs, or finding out the percentage of graduates still in the field 5 years later. That data doesn’t exist. How will prospective students get a fair picture if practitioners who are share their struggles are told to keep quiet and say only nice things? If the concern is that some of the things being said are inaccurate or overly negative, take the opportunity to provide correct information and the other side of the story.

Working part-time, having employment structures that don’t accurately reflect all money earned as taxable income, and a lag in the time it takes to reach full earning potential are not unique to acupuncture school graduates.

Low student loan default rates aren’t evidence that all is well. Default carries significant and long-term harms and, luckily, acupuncturists are responsible enough to make payments and take advantage of options to defer or reduce payments when necessary. Of greater significance – do we earn enough to pay off our loans in a timely fashion while also supporting ourselves? Can we save for retirement and purchase disability and health insurance? Will we ever be able to buy a home, or build up a cushion in case of hard times? The overall financial health of the average graduate should be the focus of attention. The highly successful grads are the exception, not the rule.

I’m not surprised that the schools are fighting to avoid consequences for the struggles of their graduates. I am surprised that other organizations and voices are supporting their evasions.

There are more than sixty Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Programs in the US. What’s a bigger threat to our future – that a few might close or that a significant number of graduates, burdened by debt, leave the profession before they can get established? How about the impact of student loan debt on the affordability of our services? Is that important?

Understanding and acknowledging our problems is the first step in making things better. We need more data and discussion, not less. More transparency and accountability, not less. A greater emphasis on making things better, not making excuses for why they aren’t. It’s time for us to own our challenges, not blame and deflect. Let’s get honest.

 

 

Professional Harmony, Professional Growth

Acupuncturists know that good health isn’t acquired by attacking invaders. Instead, we advocate living in balance with our environment to develop a strong, self-reliant, vessel. We are healthy when our system excludes threats without our even being aware of them.

As individuals, most of us practice (most of the time) what we preach. We strive for balance.

As a profession, though, we’ve chased the equivalents of miracle cures, mega-antibiotics, and the promises of “experts.” Like our clients who seek well-being that way, we are tired and struggle to maintain our tenuous health.

What if practitioners, schools, organizations, regulators, and credentialing agencies saved the energy and money that went to filing lawsuits against PT’s, (and having to defend ourselves when we are sued in return), establishing new degrees, and changing state regulations to require more training and exams? What if, instead, they identified the minimal standard necessary to practice safely and effectively and committed to work, state by state, to establish that standard as sufficient for licensure? What if we took as a guiding principle and goal that an acupuncture license in one state, and a history of safe practice, should be sufficient for licensure in any state?

Other professions are doing this. PT’s, Nurses, and MD’s are all working to make it easier for practitioners to relocate. Even lawyers can be “waived” into a state based on prior experience. These professionals don’t have to start school wondering whether their degree will be sufficient. A family move doesn’t mean giving up a career.

Acupuncture school is a risky investment, especially when requirements for licensure vary widely and change regularly.

Unlike our other battles, moving toward standardization (of licensure NOT lineage), doesn’t require convincing any judge or insurance company of our position or value. We hold the power to create a system that supports acupuncture professionals and serves the public.

It shouldn’t be difficult. It will be. We are better at vehemently disagreeing and walking away than we are at overcoming differences and finding compromise.

Both herbal credentialing and the FPD degrees were enacted despite concerns we now know were prescient.The ACAOM-sponsored DELPHI process (to establish degree titles), an after-the fact attempt to address some of those concerns, is moving forward, but not without challenges.

We lack an organization for regulators. This increases the tendency for states go their own way, and will make coming together even more difficult. Too often regulators have focused on their personal visions for the profession rather than serving the public. Many of them also sit on the boards of, or work for, acupuncture schools, raising the potential for conflicts of interest.

We could overcome these challenges. We could focus on the benefits and commit to sticking together. We could ensure the public can access Acupuncturists when they want acupuncture. We’ve spent enough on the antibiotics of legal action and the miracle cures of being Doctors and pursuing third-party payment. Now we need to focus on establishing common ground and common requirements, building our strength and our stamina. That would be a huge step toward good health for the profession.