In April 2002, I spoke to some 40 prospective students at the
Pacific College of Chinese Medicine's Spring Open House. The topic
was 'Acupuncture and Herbs.' I decided that the best way to present
Chinese Medicine to our profession's future would be to give them
my Top 10 Favorite Things about it. People love top 10 lists (actually
they seem to love anything that doesn't go on and on and on.)
In the process, I realized (duh!) that I should be promoting
Chinese Medicine as a career. So I'm going to turn my speech into
an article about the Chinese Medical profession.
The Top 10 List
- It's All Connected
- It's Mysterious
- It Works
- It's Simple AND Complex
- It's Intuitive AND Intellectual
- It's Interactive
- It Benefits You Too
- It's Traditional and Ancient
- It's Theories have Broad Implications
- It can be a Lucrative AND Altruistic
- There are so many Options
Ok, so there are 11. And they're not in any particular order.
My Top 11 Favorite Things about Chinese Medicine
#1: It's All Connected (Holistic Medicine)
If you're interested in Alternative Medicine, you probably have
heard this phrase over and over again. What is holistic
medicine? Holistic health? What is a holistic veterinarian?
Well, I'm not going to speak for everyone... What I can tell you
is how Chinese Medicine is a holistic mind body medicine, and
by that I mean: it is all connected.
Chinese medicine connects you with your environment. It
integrates natural metaphors into its system of diagnosis. Cold
weather can cause a cold condition (for example, a "cold" common
cold where the mucus is clear and chills are stronger than the
fever), and hot weather can cause a hot condition (e.g. a "hot"
common cold with sore throat, or a worsening of inflammatory (hot)
Chinese medicine connects your mind and body. Or maybe
it's better to say: Chinese medicine never disconnected
mind and body. After centuries of mind body dualism, western medicine
(biomedicine) has only recently begun to bring mind and body back
together, most notably in an interesting new science called psychoneuroimmunology.
Chinese medicine diagnoses according to patterns (groups of symptoms)
and every pattern has implied states of mind and emotion. There
are also Chinese constitutional types with their own particular
mental and emotional tendencies. These are two pivot points for
Traditional Chinese Medicine's holistic mind body approach.
This is the reason I got into Chinese Medicine. A life-changing
self-examination led to the realization that hidden parts of my
psyche had controlled my thoughts, emotions, and decisions for
most of my life. Then I saw that CM also had a way of relating
body, mind, and emotion. I thought, "Wow, maybe I can find out
more of the hidden things that are keeping me from maximum health,
happiness, and effectiveness, and then help people too!"
When you come to see an Chinese Medicine Doctor as a patient,
we listen to your symptoms, ask questions, look at your tongue
(it's the only muscle we can see and it provides us with clues
about the state of your internal organs), take your pulse (not
just your heartrate, but 6 positions on each hand that correspond
to the state of the 12 major organs), listen to the sound of your
voice, how fast you talk, look at the tint of your skin, the quality
of your nails, and even note your smell! It's said that the superior
physician can diagnose you after just watching you walk into his
office. Indeed, some practitioners only have to ask 4 or 5 questions
to nail down your pattern and then can predict remarkable things
about your health and emotions. The rest of us are still learning;
that's why they call it a practice!
Diagnosis is connected to treatment. Once we have a good
diagnosis, we know the best food, exercise, lifestyle, herbal
formulas, and acupuncture points for you. Biomedicine often has
a name for your disease but no treatment; Chinese Medicine can
take a look from another angle and find treatments based on your
pattern or meridian diagnosis. For every disease, there is
#2 - Chinese Medicine is Mysterious.
There are many systems and theories by which we practice CM (Chinese
Medicine). They often overlap... 10 practitioners might diagnose
the same patient differently. Perhaps 6 of them are just plain
wrong- but 3 or 4 of them could help. There's more than one answer?
That challenges the western mind. This doesn't mean there's more
than one reality- just more than one perspective on it.
Real people are complex- they could have a pain, emotional problems,
and a digestive complaint at the same time. Sometimes, treating
one aspect cures another one. Other times, all must be taken into
account for there to be any permanent results. Yet the totality
of a human being is always a mystery.
Chinese Medicine comes from a culture whose language is written
in symbols... The Chinese language has a new symbol for every
word, instead of building words from phonetic building blocks
as English does. Because of this, the ideas are more symbolic
and fluid. There is a logic to it, but sometimes the borders are
a bit more blurred than in Western medicine.
The Mystery of How
How and why does Chinese Medicine work? We can describe in Chinese
Medical terms how acupuncture and herbs work, but research is
still clarifying how it works in biomedical terms (for a summary
of what we do know, click
These are two different ways of decribing the same reality. Two
angles on the same object. Think about binoculars... the
two slightly different vantage points yield a three-dimensional
view. Each medicine is incomplete and has strengths and weaknesses.
Together they help us see the truth more clearly. Just as when
our eyes merge the two binocular images into one, as western and
eastern medicine become more and more integrated, we are seeing
more and more of the three-dimensional picture of human health.
#3 - Chinese Medicine works - It's Practical
The theories (however intriguing or mysterious) lead to treatments
that usually work. Healing occurs to the amazement of MD's and
sometimes even to the new practitioner!
In just my several years as an intern, I've:
- Stopped a severe asthma attack... effectively preventing a
trip to the ER
- Lowered a man's blood pressure enough to get him kicked out
of a blood pressure medication study (his BP was no longer high
enough to qualify him)
- Prevented allergy attacks
- Eliminated pain and restored lost feeling from diabetic neuropathy
- Decreased the severity of PMS symptoms
- Alleviated lupus symptoms (quenched a "flare up")
- Restored sleep to insomniacs
- Chased away all kinds of musculoskeletal aches and pains
- Eliminated severe medication-dependent acid reflux vomiting;
the man no longer needs medication or herbs and is fine
Healed Healers Healing You
Many Chinese Medicine students decide to become an CM physicians
after being significantly healed (and impressed) by it. About
one-third of them come to the profession for this reason.
A friend of mine had lupus and was treated by MD's with steroids-
she gained 40 pounds. She was told to expect to live only another
10 years or so. She tried chinese herbal medicine, and it put
her lupus into remission. She was so impressed that she decided
to make chinese medicine her profession.
# 4 It's Simple AND Complex
At first you are captivated by the simple poetry of CM - but
in time you are nearly overwhelmed by its depth and complexity.
The Advantages of the Simplicity Option
You can diagnose and treat disease at varying levels of complexity.
You can always go back to the simpler perspective if you get lost
in the complexity- this is the advantage of CM- at times, MD diagnoses
are complex and elaborate, but they lack a treatment to address
them. Western Medicine is great at describing in minute detail
what is wrong with you, but it can't always fix the problem.
Nearly Limitless Complexity and Variation
CM also can be complex- there are 29 or so symptom-patterns which
manifest in one or more of the 12 organ-systems, and there are
dozens of pathomechanisms involved by which pathogens and organ
dysfunctions affect one another. External influences can manifest
in different ways in different people. We trace this by taking
into account the individual's constitutional excesses and deficiencies.
There are thousands of herbs; about 400 are used commonly, and
each has 3-4 functions. There are hundreds of acupuncture points,
each with functions and empirical indications. These are only
the basics- there is a vast amount of variation within Chinese
Medicine... but just these basics map out a matrix of thousands
of relationships and insights.
#5 - it's Intuitive AND Intellectual
The 360 or so basic acupuncture points (and there are 100's more
extra points) each have a specific anatomical location. Clinically,
however, we often treat the "ah-shi" point (literally
"that's it" - the most sensitive area nearby). Ah-shi
points are found with help from the patient, but acupunturists
often find that they "knew" where the point was (by
feel) even before the patient said, "yeah, that's it."
Massage therapists experience this too. Patients often say, "How
did you know it hurt there?" or "I didn't even know
that was sore!"
What are these "knowing" hands? Intuition? A learned
kinesthetic wisdom? Both? This goes back to #2, "It's Mysterious."
Both Sides of Your Brain
Most students of western medicine choose their profession for
- They want to help people
- They're good at science (left-brained)
- They want to make good money
The typical CM student, on the other hand, is more right-brained,
and less money-oriented. In fact, practice management seminars
for acupuncturists often focus on the idea that "it's ok
to charge your patients money!"
This distinction may change as the mainstream conception of CM
changes; left brain facts and theories are indispensable to the
practice of CM. As was said in #4, "It's simple AND complex,"
there is quite are quite a bit of facts and theories to learn,
and integrating them in practice takes good analytical skills.
And it's becoming clear that CM practitioners can make a great
living (see #10 below).
In a way, the practice of CM is more balanced than western medical
practice or massage because it requires the usage of both left
and right brains. Biomedicine can be too intellectual (left-brained).
Massage can be too simple. In Chinese Medicine, there is an art
- Communicating with patients about issues that include the
mental, emotional and physical (in biomedicine, patients are
often sent to specialists who can deal with only one part of
them. CM in the U.S. attracts complex patients.)
- Integrating all the data into a comprehensive diagnosis (CM
diagnosis is more syndrome-oriented and includes complex, often
non-linear phenomena), and
- Choosing an applying a number of different treatment modalities.
#6 It's Interactive
Chinese Medicine students learn about how every aspect of our
lives (from bowel movements to emotions) relate to one another.
We learn to relate to every kind of person.
Patients Can Push Your Buttons
Patients sometimes push our buttons, and this give us the opportunity
to interact with ourselves. This is not always easy. We don't
always like what we find! But if you commit to growth through
interaction, helping, and self-examination, you can deactivate
your buttons, grow past your limits, and increase your usefulness
- Some students may realize they came to medicine for a selfish
reason and decide to put helping others first.
- Some students find they are people-pleasers and have
to learn how to set boundaries and be more assertive (not aggressive
- Others are more confrontational and aggressive
by nature and need to learn compassion and patience.
- Some are analytical and live in their heads - they
need to learn to focus on their hearts, gaining rapport and
loving their patients.
Letting Go of Bad Habits
Your bad habits are called into question. At one point in my
training, I went back to smoking cigarettes. It was a guilt-laden
6 weeks! It seemed hypocritical to want to be a healer while destroying
my health. And I felt like I had to hide it. I quit to be a better
example to my patients, and not to have to hide anything.
I also had to quit coffee. I knew from chinese medicine that
it wasn't helping me with my impatience and irritability. It was
worsening my liver qi stagnation! I had to give it up and take
herbs instead. I had to practice what I preach.
When you know something is bad, it seems like fun to do it anyway
(it gives you the illusion of power and control). But eventually
you give in to the wisdom, do what is right, and get to feel even
better. Then you can help others with the same struggle.
Your Victory can lead to their Victory
Occasionally, your own personal growth and commitment to self-examination
helps your patients directly. At one point, I saw a woman with
fears of abandonment. I had just discovered and confronted my
own similar fears 6 months before. She was able to feel understood
and heard and I was able to offer her solutions, strength, and
In this way, we are trailblazers- pioneers in growth. If we remain
shallow, so will our healing interactions. If we grow deeper,
we can lead people to greater healing.
#7 It Benefits YOU Too!
As was just explained, by helping others you get to grow too.
Save on Health Care Costs
By giving yourself the know-how and resources to keep yourself,
your friends, and your family well, you can save money. One acupuncturist
said on an email list that it saved her family tens of thousands
of dollars in medical costs. It can be practiced inexpensively
- for many years it treated millions of poor peasants in China
who had no access to western medicine. Chinese Medicine may be
a large part of the solution to our healthcare crisis.
Some acupuncturists trade treatments with one another to stay
in good health. I've received hundreds of treatments from fellow
students, practitioners, and my wife! It's helped me with anger,
irritability, migraines, light sensitivity, fear, over-thinking,
colds and flus, and cold sores, among other things.
#8 It's Traditional and Ancient
It's natural for us to look for reassurance, especially in dealing
with our health. Biomedicine reassures by requiring studies of
treatments for safety. Chinese medicine has been tested for safety
and efficacy (especially acupuncture), and it has thousands of
years of experience behind it to show what happens to the people
it treats. It is inarguably a positive influence in our world.
Biomedicine, on the other hand, is only 50 years old, and the
full scope of the side effect phenomenon (short and long-term)
has yet to be grasped.
Not every chinese remedy has been through the full rigors of
the Randomized Controlled Trial (biomedicine's gold-standard),
but neither have all of the standard biomedical treatments. The
millions of hours and patient visits through hundreds of years
establish traditional chinese treatments as safe and effective.
More and more studies are being done to confirm them and understand
how they work in biomedical terms. I have written extensively
on acupuncture safety and how it works here.
#9 Its Theories have Broad Implications
Since it integrates many different disciplines and realms, CM
concepts could be used to reorganize and give insight to psychology
and psychiatry, pharmaceutical medicine, and sociology. These
insights could guide and suggest future research in all fields.
The 16 types of the Meyers Briggs personality typing system have
been somewhat integrated with the 5 constitutions and 6 temperaments
of Chinese Medicine (read about that).
This yields a mind-body medicine that integrates personality and
From the patient's symptoms, we can understand their personality
and what might help or hinder their healing from an emotional
and behavioral perspective.
And vice versa, we can look at people's emotions and behavior
and guess what kind of physical problems they might have. This
makes for a quicker, more comprehensive medicine, and helps patients
feel understood and confident in the care they receive.
#10 It can be a Lucrative AND Altruistic Career
As former AMA president and Medscape CEO George Lundberg, MD
says, medicine walks a thin line because:
- It is supposed to be altruistic (selflessly concerned for
- It is also a business (and thus vulnerable to selfish greed).
We could think of this as the yin and yang of the medical business.
Insurance Coverage for Acupuncture and Herbs
Some alternative medicine practitioners are happy to stay outside
of the managed care system. It's valuable enough to patients to
pay out of their own pockets. Increasingly, acupuncture is covered
by insurance, HMO's and worker's compensation boards... sometimes
the full cost of the treatment is covered and sometimes it isn't.
Herbal medicine usually isn't covered... but patients are used
to buying herbs and vitamins without reimbursement.
Lundberg suggests that:
- Proven preventive care should be financed by the government,
- Proven catastrophic care covered by insurance, and
- Everything else paid for out-of-pocket.
Grossing Gross Amounts of Money - Acupuncture Salaries
Regardless of who pays, acupuncturists can expect an annual gross
salary of between $40,000 and$1,000,000. I just heard about a
hospital position for an acupuncturist in Iowa that was paying
$159 per hour (their medical doctor rate).
My wife made $100,000 her first year out of school. One acupuncturist
here in San Diego grosses near $1,000,000 annually with worker's
compensation cases only.
Right now in California, work-comp reimburses $120 per acupuncture
treatment. Some acupuncturists see 4 patients per hour...
Let's do some quick math on an example. If you averaged $80 per
treatment (which is achievable), saw 2 patients per hour, and
worked 8 hours per day, 4 days per week (leaving a day or two
to do paperwork), 48 weeks per year you could gross $245,760.
If you spend 40% of your gross on overhead, you earn $147,456
What Makes for Making Money
How much you earn depends, as in all businesses, upon your resourcefulness,
initiative, marketing savvy, and - most importantly - the quality
of your service. As in all service businesses, you must be good
at what you do.
The Freedom to Give
Making all that money frees us to be altruistic. A lot of volunteer
care is given by acupuncturists. During "9/11,", New
York students from the Pacific Institute of Chinese Medicine treated
the firefighters. Likewise, students in San Diego from the Pacific
College of Chinese Medicine treat Viet Nam veterans every year
at a special gathering. Of dozens of services, the acupuncture
is among the top 3 requested. You can take on a number of low
or no-fee cases in your own practice. It's up to you.
#11 - There are so many options
It's a varied profession.
In California, acupuncturists are physicians and can be a patient's
primary care practitioner - they are professionals on par with
MD's, chiropractors, and psychologists. As an acupuncturist...
- You could work with an MD, DO, DC, psychologist, psychiatrist,
or massage therapist.
- You can work in a high-class office wearing a suit. You could
practice at home wearing your slippers.
- You could do all acupuncture, or all herbs, or both.
- You could treat just sports injuries, or workers compensation,
or acupuncture face-lifts, or gynecology, or psychiatry, or
do it all!
- There is room for new schools all over the U.S. - there are
still states without any Chinese Medicine schools.
- You could practice in California (where 1/3 of us practice),
or you could have an 'insta-practice' in many places all over
the U.S. that don't have access to Chinese Medicine.
- You could teach or be a clinic supervisor at an established
- You could see loads of patients, or spend 2 hours with each
one. One herbalist in China sees 80 patients per day. You have
to be good to get herbs right- to get them right and see that
many patients per day, you have to be stellar!
- You could create a business selling products to the 20,000
or so acupuncturists in the U.S. (even more internationally).
- You can write books and teach continuing education seminars.
There are so many options!
Interested in an Oriental Medicine career?
Find schools that teach Oriental Medicine at the Council
of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine website.
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