As an acupuncturist, I am often asked if I can treat myself. Although the answer is technically yes, few acupuncturists regularly handle their own health care. So, this common question gets me thinking: What would I do if I needed an acupuncturist but couldn't ask my go-to network of needle-packing colleagues for a referral?
In many ways, choosing an acupuncturist is similar to choosing any health care provider: location, cost, specialty and personal style are all primary considerations. However, your relationship with your acupuncturist will be different from other doctors in several key ways. Here are the basic steps for finding the right practitioner.
Step 1: Get recommendations. Acupuncture's popularity has grown tremendously over the past few years, so chances are you already know someone who has tried it. Seek out recommendations, especially from someone who has seen an acupuncturist for reasons similar to your own. Although acupuncturists are trained as generalists, many acupuncturists, like MDs, are now claiming clinical strengths and specialties. If you hurt your knee playing football but your friend recommends a fantastic fertility specialist, you may not have found the best practitioner for your condition. However, you can consider calling the recommended acupuncturist to get an appropriate referral in your area.
Step 2: Search online. If you can't get a personal opinion or haven't found the right match, the internet is also a great resource, especially if you are looking for an acupuncturist with a particular specialty. Just like coffee shops and shoe stores, the internet offers plenty of places for our fellow citizens to rate their acupuncturists. While these opinions may or may not be reliable, they can help you identify popular practitioners in your area and review their specialties. Many acupuncturists have websites with pictures of their facilities and information about their background and training.
Once you have a list of potential acupuncturists in hand, consider the following:
1) Convenience: While some conditions can be treated in a single session, acupuncture is usually an ongoing therapy, which may require several weeks to many months of treatment. Therefore, your practitioner's location and schedule are of primary importance, especially for time intensive therapies.
For example, smoking cessation patients might be asked to come in every day at the beginning of their treatment. If your practitioner's office is an hour's drive away in heavy traffic, the trip alone might inspire you to start smoking again. It is also worth noting that many acupuncturists are only open limited hours. If you work full-time, you may be able to get time off for a single treatment, but ongoing therapy may become more difficult.
You may not know your recommended treatment schedule until you meet with your acupuncturist. During your first office visit, discuss the treatment program with your practitioner and make a plan you can stick to.
2) Expertise: In acupuncture, like allopathic medicine, some conditions require more experience and training than others. Cancer support, fertility, hepatitis and dermatological conditions can be particularly complicated issues, and I believe they are best treated by a specialist. There are numerous ways that an acupuncturist might garner experience in a medical specialty, including training or certification courses, apprenticeships or a high patient load in that area.
On the other hand, almost any good acupuncturist will be trained to treat general conditions, such as physical pain and sprains, stress, anxiety, allergies, migraines, digestive disorders and smoking cessation. For these conditions, you can try any recommended acupuncturist, and seek out a specialist if you are not seeing any results after a few sessions.
3) Price: The cost of acupuncture treatment can run the gamut, and often depends on a practitioner's education, years in practice and clinical set-up. Some patient populations -- such as those with HIV or breast cancer -- may qualify for free treatment, while others will pay hundreds of dollars for a private session with an experienced acupuncturist. Before you start a program of acupuncture, consider your budget and how much you are willing to spend to maintain results.
Most acupuncturists offer private treatment rooms, but the community acupuncture model is expanding and offers access to high quality and more affordable acupuncture by treating several patients in the same space (full disclosure: my clinic, Olo Acupuncture, runs on this model). Some acupuncturists will also offer discounts if you buy a pre-set number of treatments in advance.
4) Personal Connection: I do my best to limit my exposure to grumps in all of life's activities, but this is especially true for my acupuncturist. Unlike the traditional patient-doctor model, acupuncture is about creating a healing relationship -- not checking vitals and writing a prescription once a year. Most acupuncture visits run from 30 minutes to an hour, so you will be spending some quality time with your acupuncturist. Think of your relationship to an acupuncturist as akin to your relationship with a therapist, and choose someone you can work with. Sure, a grumpy acupuncturist can get amazing results, but I would recommend you look elsewhere.
5) Facilities: You will get the best results if you receive your acupuncture treatment in an environment where you can fully relax. Acupuncture facilities cover a wide spectrum, from run-down and grimy, to simple and comfortable, to sterile and clinical, to grandiose and spa-like. What type of environment do you feel most comfortable in? If there are no pictures on a practitioner's website, drop by the facility to see if it is a good match for your tastes. A personal visit is also a good way to get a sense of the clinic's style and attitude. If the receptionist is not pleasant, what does that say about everyone else there?
6) Insurance: Worthy of a blog post itself, insurance is a consideration for those who are lucky enough to have a plan that covers acupuncture. Questions to ask the provider include:
1. Is acupuncture covered?
2. What is the out-of-network deductible?
3. How much of the deductible has been met?
4. How much is reimbursed for each visit?
5. Is there a limit to the number of acupuncture visits covered, and if so, what is it?
If you are going for cancer support or for any condition that requires long-term care, consider how many treatments will be reimbursed. While it may sound generous, a policy that covers 20 visits will get you through less then half the year, if you come in every week for treatment.
There are a wide variety of acupuncturists working today, with as many styles and facilities as there are patients to serve. When choosing an acupuncturist, check websites, call clinics, ask your friends and be sure to shop around.
Follow Michael Waterman, L.Ac. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/OloAcupuncture