When you start out in acupuncture, there are many questions to answer about how and where you are going to practice. Will you rent an acupuncture office by yourself or will you share one with other people? Will you rent from someone or to other people? Will you have a home office? If you share an office, will you share it only with other acupuncturists or other health care professionals in an integrative medicine setting? or will you take your acupuncture practice to the sea and do acupuncture on a cruise ship?
With all of these questions, how does a new acupuncturist know where to start? First, take a few deep breaths. There are probably as many different ways to run an acupuncture practice as there are acupuncturists practicing. The good thing is there are some practice models that soon-to-be acupuncture school graduates and new acupuncturists can emulate. Let's take a look at a few of them.
Practicing with other acupuncturists
Let's face it, one of the best things about working with other acupuncturists is that you won't have to explain the smell to them when you burn moxa. I forgot to mention that to the massage therapist and esthetician the first time I used moxa in my East Bay office. After I explained it to them, my coworkers were relieved to find out it wasn't marijuana and they asked me to make sure I open a window to air out the room after I used it next time. I am more likely to use smokeless moxa now when I know they're around or open the window overnight after using regular moxa.
Now, only acupuncturists practice at the San Francisco clinic I work in. I like walking out of my treatment room and smelling the moxa coming from a room where another acupuncturist is using it. Of course, it's also nice to have colleagues around to consult with on cases sometimes or ask them where they got certain formulas, etc. So often, acupuncturists work by themselves in their own treatment room and don't see other acupuncturists except when they are at conferences taking continuing education classes. It can often be isolating.
Integrative medicine settings
Many acupuncturists today work in integrative medicine settings. Some say this is the future of medicine but maybe that future is now.
Bonnie Roesger is a great example of an integrative medicine practitioner. She is both a registered nurse and a licensed acupuncturist practicing in Torrance, Calif. Bonnie works in the morning at Coast Surgery Center as a nurse and from 1-6 p.m., she sees acupuncture patients in her office. Bonnie gets referrals from a pain management doctor who is in some local orthopedic groups. She said she treats about 50 percent pain management, 30 percent women's issues (menopause, infertility and PMS) and some dermatology and weight loss cases.
Bonnie refers her patients to a qigong teacher who makes house-calls, an orthopedic doctor and a chiropractor when appropriate. She does not do lab work with her acupuncture patients, but will instead work with their medical doctors. She may also refer patients to their primary care medical doctors for certain tests, such as a cardiac stress test.
Connie Christie is another good example. She works full-time for Integrative Medicine Clinic in Great Falls, Mo. She works closely with three physical therapists, a chiropractor, a physiatrist, a nurse practitioner and physician assistant. About 70 percent of her practice is pain management.
One acupuncturist I spoke to recently started out on-call at a hospital in San Francisco until another position opened up. Now he works 20 hours a week at the hospital and maintains a private practice as well. In an eight-hour shift, he'll see between eight to 11 patients, up to two an hour. Most of his patients come from doctor referrals and he does not prescribe herbs to his hospital patients. As part of his job at the hospital, he teaches an introductory class on Chinese medicine to new patients.
Taking acupuncture across the seven seas
Ever thought about acupuncture on a cruise ship? Do you want to see the world, have adventures and practice acupuncture? Then maybe practicing acupuncture on a cruise ship is for you.
Prajna Paramita Choudhury currently has a private practice in Oakland, Calif. but few years ago, she set sail and practiced acupuncture aboard the Holland American cruise-line. In the four months she was on board, Prajna saw between eight to12 patients a day. She treated about 50 percent pain conditions (for the older people on board), some seasickness and wide variety of other conditions. Acupuncture treatment packages were available so that patients could get a few treatments during their week-long cruise.
Prajna also gave talks to people about Traditional Chinese Medicine and had the opportunity to work with people who had never had acupuncture before and she said that was a really wonderful experience. She also said that you have to work really hard in the spa but that the company gives you all the tools you need to succeed and talk to people about TCM. Among the most positive things she listed about doing acupuncture on a cruise ship was that you are able to get a lot of practice, which boosts your confidence as an acupuncturist. She also said you can save up a good deal of money while on ship because you don't have to pay room and board.
Overall, Prajna said it was a great experience professionally but she missed her community and friends. She recommended this type of acupuncture for younger practitioners who are looking for adventure and are happy being independent either spending time by themselves or with new people for a short period of time. If you are someone who needs a longer time to get to know people and you need your family close by, this may not be the best option for you. But, it is an option.
Getting a chance to provide acupuncture to your local community at a reduced cost to people who may not otherwise be able to afford it, can be very rewarding. I have worked at a few community clinics in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, sometimes as a staff acupuncturist and sometimes as a volunteer. My experience at each clinic has also been challenging at times. Working with people who are going through drug and alcohol withdrawal, for example, can be difficult. At one clinic when I was the only person there doing ear acupuncture, I would sometimes see between eight to 15 people in a three-hour shift. At community clinics, you get a lot of practice, work on lots of different conditions and often have to work really quickly. All of this will help you become a better practitioner in the long run.
Some people like Alexa Hulsey started East Nashville Community Acupuncture in Tennessee a little over a year ago by herself and now has three other acupuncturists and three support staff members working with her. Alexa is a big proponent of practicing acupuncture because it "brings the benefits of TCM to ordinary people with ordinary incomes" and she said that the patients do a lot of the marketing for you.
When you're just starting out in acupuncture practice, getting a lot of experience is key. With the high volume at community acupuncture clinics, new acupuncturists will certainly get a lot.
There are many ways to realize your acupuncture practice as a business. Each of them has their own benefits and challenges. Do you want to work by yourself or alongside other people? Do you want to stay close to home or explore the world? These are not the only ways to model your acupuncture practice, but hopefully these examples will give you some ideas or inspire you to create your own model.
Where will you begin?
Denise Cicuto is a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist, specializing in women's health and immunity. Denise has a private practice with offices in San Francisco and in Alameda, Calif. She can be reached at www.cicutoacupuncture.com.