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Acupuncture Today
May, 2002, Vol. 03, Issue 05
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Spotlight on Medical Acupuncture: An Interview with Marshall Sager, DO, DABMA

By Editorial Staff

For more than 30 years, Dr. Marshall Sager has helped patients get well using the best of what Eastern and Western medicine have to offer. A 1967 graduate of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Dr.

Sager embarked on a new career in the healing arts in 1990, when he completed his training in medical acupuncture from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Last year, Dr. Sager became the president of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (AAMA). Recently, Acupuncture Today spoke with Dr. Sager to gain some insight into his organization, and to see what role he believes medical acupuncture can play in the general acupuncture and Oriental medicine community.

Acupuncture Today (AT): How did you first become interested in acupuncture?

Marshall Sager (MS): I was working as a family physician for about 25 years prior to my studying acupuncture. During that time, I felt that there was a lack of including the patient in the therapeutic equation. The patient was never a part of the healing process. The Western model of care always talks about the problems people have rather than the people who have the problems. It became apparent to me that that was one of the reasons why there was a lack of success in a lot of cases. For instance, if three people with the same set of symptoms were given the same medication, one person would get better, one would get worse, and nothing would happen to the third person. It became obvious to me that you had to start looking at the individual. That was the only difference in the process. So I found a paradigm of medicine that was well-established - (close to 5,000 years, actually) - that factored in the individuality of the patient, and I undertook the study of acupuncture.

My study of acupuncture was through the UCLA program, and has been augmented through many other training programs, so that presently, I am - as are many of the physician acupuncturists - proficient in many paradigms or different models of acupuncture, and not limited to just one approach. I became president of the AAMA last April after being on the board six years or so. Our membership presently consists of about 2,000 physician acupuncturists in North America.

AT: Where did you receive your medical training?

MS: I went to the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. I'm an osteopathic physician, along with an allopathic physician, along with a medical acupuncturist. I'm a "triple-threat."

AT: How would you compare the training you received in Western medicine compared to acupuncture and Oriental medicine?

MS: I don't know if you can compare or contrast them. You have to look at it from a complementary approach. One medicine is an adjunct to the other, depending on what you're using it for. The Western biopharmacological training that I had was for four years, with two or three more years of internships and residency after that. It gave me a firm grounding in anatomy, physiology, pathology and what have you. Upon that foundation, I built my training of medical acupuncture.

The two forms of medicine work in concert in the respect that you have to know the anatomy, physiology, etc., as a physician is trained to do, in order to perform acupuncture. Medical acupuncture is different from traditional acupuncture in the sense that physician acupuncturists have a legal, ethical and moral responsibility to additionally utilize their biomedical training also in the treatment of patients. Their malpractice insurance rates reflects that, and they're held to a standard that is fairly high in the sense that they have to be able to utilize both paradigms of medicine responsibly.

AT: How has your training in acupuncture changed the way you practice medicine? Do you find that you use acupuncture more in your practice? Less? Or is there a combination of the two?

MS: I specialize in just medical acupuncture, and I use Western medicine as an adjunct to my primary thrust, which is acupuncture.

AT: Do you practice with other physicians, or do you have a solo practice?

MS: I have a solo practice.

AT: What do the other physicians you know or work with think of the idea of a medical doctor or osteopath practicing acupuncture?

MS: It depends on the individual. Some doctors are more open to alternative and complementary medicine than others. You have the whole gamut of responses, depending on where they're coming from. Some physicians come to me as patients. Others forbid their own patients from having acupuncture treatments. I think the attitude of the medical community towards acupuncture is a function of exposure, education and ego - or lack thereof.

AT: Do you think the attitudes of medical doctors are improving?

MS: I think it's getting better than worse; that's for sure. The physicians who are on the fence usually see that there is a place for acupuncture, and certainly they're becoming believers. At least, they're willing to try. For those that have closed their minds to it completely, though, you're not going to be able to do anything. Anything you say or do or show is not going to make any difference. That's their inborn prejudice, but for those doctors who are willing to take a look and don't have strong feelings against acupuncture, I'm sure that more and more are beginning to realize that this is another approach.

AT: Let's switch gears for a minute and get some information on your organization.

MS: The AAMA was formed in 1987 by a number of doctors who were unhappy with Western medicine, expressing somewhat what I expressed earlier. It's grown to about 2,000 physicians. We now have a board certification process through the American Board of Medical Acupuncture, which certifies physician acupuncturists in the U.S. We have an annual symposium that attracts 400-500 attendees. We have about six continuing education programs ongoing throughout the year. In order to be (and remain) a member of the AAMA, you have to have ongoing continuing education credits, and there's a higher standard if you're board certified, or even a Fellow of the Academy, which is another level of membership. We are a member of the International Congress of Medical Acupuncture and Related Therapies (ICMART), which is headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, and we enjoy a good international reputation. Additionally, we have certified five training programs in medical acupuncture, at this point, throughout the country. We also have 15 chapters throughout the country.

AT: What is the AAMA doing to open up the lines of communication between professions and get the message out about acupuncture?

MS: We're making a concerted effort to bring an introduction to acupuncture into the medical schools. At least the physicians in training will understand it a little bit more. Maybe they don't have to be trained in it, but at least they will know it exists and they can refer to a physician acupuncturist. We also have an outreach to the public at large. Those two approaches have been fairly successful for acupuncture in general throughout the country. I think it's a big help.

AT: How is the AAMA working with other acupuncture organizations to help promote the profession?

MS: At this juncture, that's not been done as much as I would have liked it to be. We're making a concerted effort in that regard to make an attempt to work co-jointly (with other acupuncture organizations). I've had meetings with license acupuncturists on those issues, and we continue to have them. Our latest symposium is the first that's open to non-physician acupuncturists. They're welcome and encouraged to attend.

AT: What would an acupuncturist or doctor of Oriental medicine get out of the symposium?

MS: I think they'd understand that there is a segment of the physician population that's serious about learning, applying and utilizing acupuncture in their practices. I think they'll learn and see that there are other approaches that maybe they haven't been exposed to with respect to acupuncture's application and other paradigms of acupuncture to use. I'm sure it will become apparent that physician acupuncturists and LAcs should be able to, and must, peacefully coexist if the practice of acupuncture is to advance in this country. It's a benefit for not only the two professions, but for the public as a whole, if we go forth and talk positively about acupuncture in general and avoid negative comments about each other.

AT: Where do see this profession going in the near future - say 5-10 years from now? Do you think there will be more unity between Eastern and Western practitioners?

MS: I would hope it would continue to improve. I think it's a win-win-win situation, and it would be a shame if it didn't get better. The AAMA certainly has every intention to do what it can to make sure that communications and relations progress.

AT: Thank you, Dr. Sager.

Editor's note: If you would like more information on the AAMA and medical acupuncture, visit


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