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  • Dr. Kathleen Blazek, DAC, LAc

What does it take to be an acupuncturist?

Throughout the course of my clinic day I get asked many times, "why did I chose to become an acupuncturist?". I have reflected this question myself, many, many times.

Where I started... Having a lucrative career first as a Microsoft Systems Engineer for a software development team and then as a Registered Respiratory Therapist (the heros in the corona virus front) in two of the major hospitals in Colorado Springs, I enjoyed helping patients in all areas of medicine. Trauma, emergency medicine, acute care, smoking and asthma education, neonatal medicine, pediatric medicine, surgical and operative care and many more aspects of cardio-pulmonary medicine. Having technical skill sets in managing ventilators and other complex equipment kept me delving deeper into how to provide the most optimal patient care.

Choosing to give all of that up and move over into a parallel alternative and integrative field like acupuncture? It wasn't because of my lack of love for respiratory care. It was more because from the time I was a small girl, I was raised to take initiative for my own health, and this was mostly done through alternative-based medicines. This foundation was instilled in me, and I knew in the field of general health and medicine - especially in the field of pain - there were better alternative choices than drugs and dead-end medicine.

Now don't jump too far ahead. I worked in trauma and emergency medicine for almost eight years, and helped saved many lives with the application of drugs and medication. That is the way it should be, and needs to be. There is rarely second guessing and leisure time involved with emergency/trauma medicine. Choices are made quickly, based upon experience and an astute intuition of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and many other support personnel, and most of the time they are spot on and they save lives every single minute of every single day. These are the people I would choose to work on me if I was in an emergent situation. No doubt. But emergency medicine is only a small fraction of our health care system. The majority of individuals who see doctors on a regular bases do so due to poor and failing health, chronic disease and the #1 reason for visiting the doctor? ... Pain.

Acupuncture and Pain...

America's population sees doctors for pain more than any other country on earth. This could be due to several factors... the aging Baby Boomers, lack of physical activity, poor health and nutrition that causes weak bones, muscles and connective tissue, stress and yes, even medications themselves can cause weakness in pain in our bodies such as steroids and statin drugs.

The majority of acupuncturists that I know went into this medicine to treat specific issues such as internal medicine, fertility and women's issues, orthopedics, etc., but in the end 99% of us find that the greater percentage of our patients end up being pain patients. Why? Because acupuncture is incredibly successful for pain. In most cases upwards of 80% effective. It is so successful, many medical doctors have started referring their patients to a licensed acupuncture more and more in the last ten years due to the over indulgence of opioid pain medications, deaths from overdosing and also the elephant in the room - doctors know that opioids are not effective for long-term use and diminish a person's quality of life, takes away their ability to perform daily activities such as driving, working and prevents them from getting certain jobs. This is why functional medicine such as physical therapy, occupational therapy and chiropractic, along with doctors in acupuncture are on the rise as alternative and intragrative medicines, working with a patient's care provider to find treatments that are safe, effective and long-term.

So why leave a lucrative career in Western Medicine for a career in Eastern Medicine as an Acupuncturist?

During my work in the hospital, I tore my rotator cuff three different times. Once on the left, twice on the right. The first tear on my right, I knew that it was a bit more serious. This was during the H1N1 crisis and I knew I could not take of weeks and weeks of work to have surgery plus the time to recover. At the suggestion of a friend and colleague, I went to an acupuncturist. I received treatments two times a week while I continued to work. For about the first month, their wasn't much change. However, I continued on. About the middle to the end of the second month I was able to lift my arm and actually put my hand behind my back with little pain. Even though it took a few months later to fully regain 80% mobility of my shoulder and 100% about a year later, the pain was minimal and I could continue to work and perform my duties at the hospital with no interruptions or time off for recovery. This was when my eyes were opened to the efficacy and possibilities of acupuncture. For the other two minor rotator tears I saw the acupuncturist right away, and after a month or so, had no more issues. This was exciting to me. Never before this had I had acupuncture. I knew about it, but not really "about" it. I was sold. For the next three years I researched acupuncture and eastern medicine and found myself drawn in. The integration of western and eastern medicine excited me. What does it take to be an Acupuncturist? All accredited acupuncturists must have a master's degree in acupuncture and/or Oriental Medicine. To get a master's degree in acupuncture you attended an accredited eastern medicine medical school. There are hundreds across the United States. In Colorado we have two of them. One in Denver, one in Boulder. The degree program is from 2.5 years to 3 years. Prior to attending most accredited traditional medicine schools a total of 120 credit hours from an undergraduate program is required. Undergraduate hours can come from any degree program. You are not required to have a degree in medicine. However, certain science prerequisites are needed and those must be met prior to enrollment. The master's degree program in acupuncture and Chinese medicine is almost three years of western studies such as Biology, Microbiology, Chemistry, Pharmacology, Anatomy & Physiology, and Western Medical Language, plus Eastern and Chinese Medicine, Acupuncture, Points, Theory and Practicum, Neuro and Orthopedics, Internal Medicine, Herbal Pharmacology, Tai Ji, Chinese Medicine Theapies (such as cupping, tuina, guasha), plus 1,200 - 1,400 hours of clinical practicum. This is no career for the lazy or slight of heart.

In the school I attended, Colorado School of Traditional Chinese Medicine we had our own student clinic. Five days a week patients could make appointments to be treated by the student practitioners. This provided great experience, social skills, protocols and guided assistance from the clinic doctors to promote the growth of the newly evolving practitioners of Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture. Each student has to commit to 1,200 - 1,400 hours of clinical participation before they graduate.

At the completion of their master's education, a student will attain another 90 credit hours of education and 1,400 hours of clinical experience. They now must take multiple exit exams in order to be released from their educational obligations, and take three NCCAOM board exams in order to receive their credentials and degree so that they can start practicing as an acupuncturist. Most states also require acupuncturists to be licensed within the state in which they practice. In order to receive a license, acupuncturists must show and prove that they have been credentialed and have passed all the required board exams by the National Credentialing Commission of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

It is important to note, that a certified acupuncturist is not a licensed acupuncturist or a MSAc. Many chiropractors, NPs, PAs, and MDs can get a certification in acupuncture due to their medical degrees. To get a certificate, you just have to attend about 40 - 100 hours of training on the weekends. A physical therapist must attend a minimum of 40 hours of training to be certified in dry needling. These certification hours pale in comparison to the 1,200 hours required by a licensed and accredited acupuncturist.

What this shows is that acupuncture is so effective, even western medical practitioners want to use it in their medicine. It is important that the patient understand when and why to choose a licensed and credentialed acupuncturist over a certified acupuncturist. Even though there is a use for dry needling in the field of physical therapy and it has many benefits, there is an educated understanding how inserting an acupuncture needle isn't just beneficial for a local muscular trigger point, but causes multiple systemic and nervous system reactions, including processes in the internal organs. This is an education that likely only an acupuncturist who goes through a full 2.5 years of schooling, training and mentorship can fully understand.

So what does it take to become a Doctor of Acupuncture? In recent years, more medical professions are pushing their participants to raise their standards when it comes to education. Nursing is encouraging more BSNs and less associates degrees in nursing, physical therapists are now graduating with DPTs (doctor of physical therapy) unlike a few years ago when they graduated with master's degrees, respiratory therapists are encouraged to get their bachelor's degrees in respiratory (BRT) and not just an associates degree. Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine are no different.

To keep up with the changing medical times, there are several acupuncture schools around the country that started offering transitional doctorates in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. What this means is that licensed and credentialed acupuncturists who had been practicing in clinics across the country could now transition from a master's degree into a doctorate based upon continuing educational requirements and clinical experience. This additional medical education and training puts acupuncturists equal or above many of their medical counterparts and allows acupuncture to be a fully integrative medicine.


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