There is a silent revolution in healthcare emerging in the United States. Based on a tradition that boasts a several thousand-year history, the community acupuncture movement is pioneering a non-consumptive healthcare model that brings people together to promote human well-being in an affordable way. There is an implied class-consciousness involved in the proliferation of these clinics. Practitioners are motivated by the belief that acupuncture is effective and should be made as widely available as possible.
I have long suffered from a series of chronic medical problems, including gastrointestinal issues and severe back pain. Though my medical insurance was always keen to cover painkillers, it didn’t support holistic modalities. I have had a lot of success with acupuncture, and write this post following my experience at several clinics, most recently at VT Community Acupuncture.
Healing the Whole Person
Consumptive healthcare, to me, is the procurement of pharmaceuticals or treatments to eliminate the manifestations of a specific ailment. The focus of the treatment remains on the symptoms, and “receipt” of healing from the “doctor-expert.” Non-consumptive healthcare fits in the broader concept of “ Holism “ and takes a more complex systems approach to the body’s ability to heal itself. It focuses on promoting an enabling environment, one that supports the proper function and healing of the body. One such non-consumptive approach is community acupuncture.
Western medicine has done a great job of treating diseases and developing pharmaceuticals to relieve symptoms. One cannot deny the importance of specific medical advances, like penicillin and bypass surgery. However, this deductive approach to medicine has fostered an almost religious belief in the acute treatment of most problems, which often comes with severe, and unknown, side effects (such as the introduction of synthetic substances into the body to treat specific pain or conditions).
Acupuncture, on the other hand, comes from a complex systems view of the human being. It is based on the idea that energy, or chi, courses through the body, along a series of meridians. Sickness and illness are caused by blockages or deficiency of this energy, and thousands of points along these meridians have been identified as effective. Instead of solely treating symptoms, acupuncture is based on the idea that the body itself has the capacity to heal, and that the flow of chi is essential for human health. Activating this life energy helps the body to restore its critical functions.
As opposed to the common western practice of focusing on the 10% of things that are not functioning correctly, acupuncture is rooted in a Confucian tradition that focuses on the 90% of the body that is functioning well. Everyone who walks through the door has some condition from which they want relief, be it stress, bursitis, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, etc. The practitioner takes an asset-based approach that helps stimulate the natural healing capacity of the body (e.g., what’s working well here that can be strengthened?).
Community acupuncture adds the collective element of individuals receiving treatment in a common space. Many clinics arrange a series of recliner and ‘zero-gravity’ chairs in a circle around the room, and patients often receive treatment using distal points, which does not require the removal of clothes.
The group treatment space begins to break down the taboos that surround illness and health. Patients become involved in the joint experience of creating a
collective chi field, which patients and clinic employees have described as having positive side effects, increasing human connection and creating a ripple of change in our world.
This community acupuncture model stands in contradiction to an industry characterized by rising healthcare costs, in part caused by the increased privatization of treatment space itself. It challenges both the mainstream medicine paradigm, as well as the consumerist paradigm.
The People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture ( POCA) is leading the charge, helping to establish a unique multi-stakeholder cooperative of practitioners, patients, clinics and supporters. POCA serves as a support network, “creating healthcare that benefits patients, practitioners, and businesses.” This ownership model represents the importance of relationships in the provision of healthcare.
Community acupuncture clinics increase accessibility by offering a sliding scale, which often ranges from $15–40. Some clinics are experimenting with anonymous payments, helping to further disconnect from the idea of ‘consuming the treatment’ for a given price.
They are also providing support and start-up loans for practitioners to start new clinics. POCA has even organized networks of member volunteers to assist at various clinics.
Individuals interested in community acupuncture, but living in locations where a clinic currently doesn’t exist, can register their interest on the POCA website. Once a geographic area reaches a certain critical mass of interested patients, POCA helps coordinate the connection of potential practitioners to establish clinics there.
To date, I have been to clinics in Burlington, Philadelphia, and Oakland, while friends have had great things to say about others in Brooklyn, NY and the original community acupuncture location in Portland, OR. Each of the clinics I’ve been to have their own flavor, and all have been amazingly welcoming and refreshing. Though predominantly in North America, community acupuncture clinics are popping up all over the world. Check out locations here.
One particular difficulty for the community acupuncture movement is cost: both the cost of education, as well as the cost of treatment.
The cost of professional acupuncture training has been fairly high. Acupuncture schools contain broad curricula that teach their students to spend a lot of time thinking, talking, and diagnosing. Graduates of traditional Chinese medicine, for example, attend a rigorous 4-year program that makes them comprehensive herbal, acupuncture, and keen diagnostic practitioners.* Practitioners are leaving acupuncture school with high debt levels (which can be from $30–100,000). Their comprehensive training has often justified the typical $60–100 price tag per private treatment. This helps practitioners to make a living and shoulder their large debt burdens, but the price level excludes many potential patients.
POCA is attempting to combat this cost problem on two separate fronts.
First of all, the community acupuncture model has figured out how to simplify treatments so that they can treat more people per hour and keep it affordable for the majority of the population, who could not afford to get regular acupuncture otherwise. Community acupuncture clinics remain committed to a sliding scale payment system for treatments, and are guided by their mission to increase accessibility to as many populations as possible.
As for the cost of treatment, POCA is pioneering a new educational model that will launch the first ever community acupuncture school as part of their multi-stakeholder cooperative. POCATech is designed around a much more applied curriculum, in response to what they consider the bloat of content in accredited schools. They expect to be able to keep tuition costs to $6,000/year, in conjunction with a host of other co- and pre-requisites. They expect that this model will help to reduce the practitioner debt burden. Fundraising for startup costs is presently underway.
Resistance has come from both the mainstream medical establishment, as well as the traditional, private-practice, acupuncture community. Some have criticized the community acupuncture movement of devaluing the service of acupuncture; acupuncturists provide a valuable service and recipients of the service should therefore compensate them accordingly. Community acupuncturists respond that the individual treatment model is the application of a western, consumptive mindset to an ancient, collectivist tradition. The community acupuncture model actually restores acupuncture to its holistic roots and provides an important avenue to the promotion of our collective well-being.
Acknowledgements: I want to thank Brooke Moen, Julie Suarez-Cormier, and Ellen Vincent for taking the time to discuss their experience as practitioners of community acupuncture, and providing critical feedback on this article. I would also like to thank Kimberly Murray, who first introduced me to the West Philadelphia acupuncture clinic.
*There are many different forms of acupuncture, and community acupuncture is one particular model.
Originally published in January 2013 on the Post Growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI here.