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Sunday, April 29, 2012

How to choose an acupuncturist and (or) a Chinese medicine doctor?

Traditional Chinese medicine (including acupuncture) as an alternative medicine, like Western medicine, is a science that is safe, powerful and effective, which is literally thousands of years old. It is extremely complex - with over a thousand herbs and over 361 acupuncture points, learning the philosophy of the medicine takes years of dedication and experience. Treatments or prescriptions from different practitioners may render totally different effectiveness to the patient. What follows are some of the most important things you need to know on choosing an acupuncturist and (or) a Chinese medicine doctor.

• Qualification: There is no acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine regulations in most provinces in Canada (except for British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec). If you reside in Kitchener Waterloo area (the regulation in Ontario is in process and is presumably to be finished by the end of 2014) where acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine is not regulated, you may want to check if the acupuncturist is registered with an authoritative professional organization, such as the Canadian Society of Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture (CSCMA). Although such a credential does not ensure highest competency, it does indicate that the practitioner has met the minimum standards to treat patients using acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine.

• Education: In Ontario, each acupuncturist or traditional Chinese medicine doctor's training varies greatly. While some have completed more than 4 years of full time study as a must-have qualification to register with CSCMA, others may be practicing after taking only a few weekend courses. The graduates from some Canadian acupuncture and (or) traditional Chinese medicine schools or colleges with 3-4 years full-time program are generally qualified. For places outside Canada, most people believe China has the best acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine programs. This is true considering traditional Chinese medicine is originated from China. However, admit it or not, although some top institutions in China provide world-class education, there is considerable number of universities or colleges offer fake certificates. That is to say, even though the practitioner is a PhD, he/she may not really satisfy the minimum requirements to an undergraduate level program from an accredited university! Therefore, make sure to ask the practitioner about his/her education carefully, and do some research on his/her graduate university before visiting, e.g., ask your Chinese friends if they know that university or not; if it is a Ministry of Education approved institution; or if it can be found on the Wiki (

• Experience: Like a Western medicine doctor, it is not only mandatory for a fully qualified traditional Chinese medicine practitioner to complete a graduate level program, but it also requires the practitioner to practice at least 2-3 years. In fact, there are many elements in acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine which can only be earned through years of clinical practice. There is a common misunderstanding on defining an experienced traditional Chinese medicine doctor – the older the better. In fact, some traditional Chinese medicine practitioners start practice at their 50’s. So ask the practitioner about the number of years of clinical experience and number of patients he/she has treated.

• Practice Styles: A qualified traditional Chinese medicine practitioner writes individual prescriptions for each patient based on his or her unique conditions to obtain the best possible effectiveness. Practitioners give prepackaged products indicating their skill and commitment to herbal medicine is not high. Granted, sometimes such a simplified approach is the best, but this method should be the exception rather than the rule. Thus, before taking the prescription, ask the practitioner what is his/her practice style.

• Promise: While acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine are often highly effective in treating a wide range of conditions and their symptoms, every person is different and must be treated as such. As in conventional medicine, a treatment that works for one does not necessarily work for all. Any healthcare professional, that makes a promise for a guaranteed cure before seeing the patient in person, or offers a quick fix to all problems, is not offering healthcare. There are no magic bullets or miracle cures for both Eastern medicine and Western medicine. A good practitioner never makes oral or written promise like that before the diagnosis.

 Cost: Since many health conditions require a series of treatment sessions, the cost is a great consideration for many people. The treatment fee is determined by both subjective and objective factors such as practitioner’s confidence, clinic location, qualifications, experience, skill, quality of disposable needles, herbal medicine and other equipment used, acupuncture procedure, and duration of each session, etc. It is important to consider these variables instead of simply comparing prices only.

• Insurance: Most of the insurance companies in Canada now cover all or some of the cost for acupuncture. Note that many insurance companies, especially in places like Ontario, where there are no acupuncture laws, have specific requirements in regard to acupuncturist’s qualifications and designations. These must be met according to their policy in order to qualify for the coverage. For instance, most insurance companies accredit a certified CSCMA acupuncturist, and an acupuncturist with a CSCMA certificate is qualified for an “acupuncturist”, “registered acupuncturist”, “acupuncture specialist”, etc., as appearing in relative insurance terms. Check with your insurance provider for details.

Keep in mind -- Always ask questions to the practitioner prior to, during, and after treatment. Knowledge is a key in self-care, so don't hesitate to make inquiries. Any good practitioners will be more than happy to fully explain the answers to your questions in terms you can easily understand.

Written by Cathy Ding, M.Sc., Ac., C.M.D., Apr. 29, 2012.

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