How to Select an Acupuncturist (in California)
Where do I start looking for my dream acupuncturist?
As an licensed acupuncturist in California, I am often asked by friends or family how to find a good acupuncturist near their home. Clearly, choosing any the right health care provider is an important decision, so you should devote some research to the process. Some tips are below:
- Find an acupuncturist who has really studied TCM. In the United States, the Master of Science in Oriental Medicine (MS) degree requires 3 or more years of study in the complicated field of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) diagnosis. With this advanced knowledge an acupuncturist will be able to choose acupuncture points and herbal formulas appropriately. You should avoid receiving acupuncture from a health practitioner, no matter what other medical degrees they possess, who got their acupuncture license by taking only a short, 1-2 month elective course of study.
- Find someone who has seen a large volume of patients. Acupuncture is a experience-based skill and practitioners get better with practice. No matter how educated or credentialed someone is, if they have only been practicing for one year they will not have the experience needed to treat many complex conditions. So find an acupuncturist who have been in private practice a long time, or one with a lot of clinic experience.
- Ability to understand Western medical diagnosis. We are not living in China, and most of our more serious patients come to us already having tried Western medicine. So depending on your condition and medical history, you may want an acupuncturist who knows Western diagnosis well, has the ability to understand basic lab work, and who has a strong knowledge of herb/drug interactions. Not everyone has all this. Don’t be afraid to ask your acupuncturist about their work experience collaborating with Western doctors. A good time to raise this subject will be when your acupuncturist asks you what medications you are taking.
- Consider the style of acupuncture. Some people prefer gentle acupuncture and some prefer a stronger approach with greater stimulation, much like some people prefer shiatsu as opposed to deep-tissue massage. Japanese acupuncture is generally milder than traditional Chinese acupuncture.
- Personalty and fit. Its important to find an acupuncturist that you enjoy being around and who does not cause you any stress, since your acupuncture sessions should be spent resting and relaxing while the needles do their work. On paper an acupuncturist might seem perfect for you, but if you find them stressful to deal with or uncommunicative during your first appointment, consider finding another.
- Do you prefer a man or a woman? For some people this does not matter. But acupuncture is a very hands on therapy, its a bit like getting a massage. If you have a gender preference for your massage therapist, you might end up feeling the same way about an acupuncturist.
- Nearby location. Like massage or chiropractic medicine, acupuncture is process-oriented therapy and it may require weeks or months of treatment and several appointments. So you may want your acupuncturist to be close to you and conveniently located. Put together a simple list of everyone who is nearby. Use your smartphone or Google maps and look up every acupuncturist within 5 miles, or 10 miles, or whatever distance is acceptable to you.
- Find someone who is five years out of school or more. This is not just an arbitrary number, it is how much experience you have to have in order to legally supervise an apprentice acupuncturist in the State of California. Use it as a guideline elsewhere.
- Search online. Many acupuncturists have websites, with information about their practice areas and photos of their facilities. You can also find ratings of acupuncturists on a variety of other websites. Although these opinions may or may not be reliable, and are equally well an indicator of the marketing skills of the acupuncturist (or whoever they hire to promote their business), you can still learn a lot.
- Acupuncturists promoting themselves in the media. Some acupuncturists are frequent guests on local TV or radio, write articles for popular magazines, etc. I would not factor this into a decision, either positively or negatively, myself. Having much experience in the film and TV industry, I know that the skill set for promoting yourself and your business in broadcast or print is very different from the skills you need to be an effective healer. As a patient you are looking for a good healer; whether they are visible in the media or not is less important to you.
- Confirm that they are licensed to practice. Finally, confirm that your acupuncturist has an L.Ac. (Licensed Acupuncturist) certification, which they get by passing an exam administered by many states. There is also a national exam they can take but this is considerably less rigorous than most state’s exams, including those of California and Massachusetts. The main reason acupuncturists take the easier national exam is to be able to practice in states that do not have their own L.Ac. examination process. Passing the national exam will not certify someone to practice acupuncture in states such as California, nor does it necessarily mean they are any more qualified than someone who has passed just a state exam.
There are a lot of factors here so you probably will end up weighing which are most important to you and compromising a bit here and there on the others. I hope these suggestions help you find an acupuncturist that meets your needs and who keeps you healthy and happy.
Eric Schmidt, L.Ac.
Santa Monica, CA