The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Several years ago, I was on the train from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, on my way home, when I struck up a conversation with an amicable young woman.  Once I revealed that I worked as a healthcare professional, she freely began sharing her medical story with me.  As a practitioner you find that many people do not hesitate to open up and divulge personal details about their health. 

She had tried Chinese medicine for her condition, with modest success.  In telling her story, she mentioned that the practitioner was a seasoned veteran who had practiced for many years.  I racked my brain trying to think of which senior practitioner she might have seen.  When she eventually remembered the name of the practitioner, I was perplexed and a bit troubled.

The acupuncturist had, in fact, only graduated recently, but it was possible that the patient had just misunderstood something that was said.  I wished the woman well and did not immediately follow up on our conversation.  At some point, however, I went to the practitioner’s website and read the bio the practitioner had posted for prospective patients.  There it was, in black-and-white: the unabashed claim that she had been in practice for well over a decade. 

Honestly, it made me angry.  I have worked hard to build my practice over the years.  Despite the financial struggles, the difficult cases, the emotional heartbreak when your patients do not respond well to care, day by day and treatment by treatment, I have earned the insight and skills of an experienced practitioner.  With that single fraudulent claim, however, I felt someone had robbed me of a prized possession.

We are encouraged to be nice—in academia we use the term collegiality—and to avoid judging or criticizing others, but, when the safety of the public is at stake, there is an obligation to speak out.  Not only did the false claims of my colleague affect me, she was misleading the public by misrepresenting herself. 

I contacted the board and ask them to investigate.  After a phone conversation with the acupuncturist in question, they determined that her previous work in another healthcare field gave her claim nominal legitimacy.  Of course, as my conversation with one of her clients proved, patients go to her clinic under false pretenses and give up on Chinese medical care when, what they perceive to be expert care, does not work.

I was recently reminded of this story after doing some research into a company that provides herbal supplements primarily to doctors who practice CAM.  That founder of the business, responsible for all of the company's formulations, labels herself a naturopath, but provides no history of training or education.  According to the state website, that individual currently holds no professional licenses, medical or otherwise, in California.

This is not the only time I have seen a lack of integrity in complementary and alternative medicine and, sadly, the acupuncture and Oriental medicine field is no exception.  At the student level, I have been privy to cases of blatant cheating and plagiarism.  Among professionals, it is no secret that there are Chinese practitioners who studied and practiced Western medicine in China only to magically transform into TCM experts in the U.S.  Yet another example involves an acupuncturist who only received introductory training in Chinese medicine but is a favorite referral for of Harvard-trained M.D..  The opportunities, unfortunately, for people who wish to embellish, exaggerate, or even fabricate their training, credentials, and experience in CAM are ample.

There is good news.  In my involvement with the accreditation of schools, I have met and worked alongside many individuals with exceptional integrity who are bright, extremely knowledgeable, and committed to excellence in our education system.  This translates into constant progress in AOM education which, in turn, produces professionals with genuine expertise.  Once enough time has passed, those individuals who got by in the past with questionable claims will hopefully be replaced by those who have been well trained to provide safe and effective care.

If you are a colleague, I would ask that you represent yourself accurately.  Be proud of your accomplishments and only publicize titles you have earned.  If you are a novice practitioner, resist the urge to inflate your clinical experience, keep learning, be humble, and work diligently.  Be worthy of the generations of Chinese doctors who risked their lives to find effective herbs, read and reread the classic texts to develop better treatments, and dedicated themselves selflessly to helping patients.

If you are a patient, do due diligence and do not believe everything you read or are told.  Many states have acupuncture boards that maintain websites where you can research a practitioner’s qualifications.  Take a few minutes to confirm that a clinic’s advertising is accurate.  Know that herbs and acupuncture are not always safe and select a professional who has been well-trained to provide the services you need.  Recognize that complex conditions often demand a healthcare provider with at least a decade or more of experience and rely on newer practitioners primarily for simpler complaints. 

Chinese medicine has the power to change lives, but, like all tools, its true potential can only be reached when it is used by an expert.  It is my hope that we here in the West will continue to cultivate our Chinese medical culture to ensure that we do justice to this ancient and profound medicine.