Medical acupuncture vs Registered Acupuncturist

Your doctor, chiropractor, physician’s assistant or even physical therapist may say to you, “I do acupuncture”.  What they really mean is that they do neuromodulation (referring to the technique’s reputed ability to modulate, enhance or diminish, the effect of neurotransmitters) or trigger point needling (needling local points of nerve pain in muscles).  Often these practitioners will call what they do “medical acupuncture”.

These practitioners have between 100-300 hours of training in acupuncture. They get a brief overview about acupuncture meridians,  learn a few acupuncture points, and receive instruction about how to insert an acupuncture needle.  While trigger point needling may have some benefit in pain relief, these practitioners have no training in, nor are they practicing Oriental medicine. They are using neuromodulation as an adjunctive therapy to their primary practice.

Licensed Acupuncturists (LAc), whose educational focus is in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, receive approximately 80% of their training exclusively in this field, and undergo an extensive clinical internship in Oriental medicine averaging three years.



Certified/Physician Acupuncturist

Certified physician, chiropractor or dentist [medical] acupuncturists (CAc) with 100 – 300 hours of training

Training which is often comprised of home study and video-taped lectures

Minimal clinical experience in acupuncture or no actual patient treatments before certification

Not required to complete the national certification examination to prove competency in acupuncture

Not required to regularly complete continuing education courses

Licensed Acupuncturist

Licensed acupuncturists (LAc) with an average of 2,700 hours of master’s-level training

Master’s level, on-site training at a nationally accredited school or college of acupuncture

Hundreds of hours of clinical experience and at least 250 actual patient treatments before licensure

Required to pass the national certification exam in acupuncture in order to become licensed (NCCAOM board certification)

Required to do regular continuing education to maintain national certification

Amount of Training in Acupuncture

1905-2000 hours in Acupuncture

2625-3500 hours in Oriental Medicine

•    Licensed Acupuncturist

•    Traditional Chinese Medicine Comprehensively-trained Acupuncturist

•    Oriental Medicine Practitioner

•    Oriental Medical Acupuncture

Many Acupuncture and Oriental schools exceed 2000 hours.  Colleges in California must meet a minimum required 3,000 hours in Oriental Medicine.
Oriental medicine includes acupuncture, Chinese herbology and dietary therapy, tui na massage, tai qi and qi gong meditative exercises.

300 hours or less

•    Medical Acupuncture

•    Neuromodulation

•    Meridian Balancing/Therapy

•    Chiropractic Acupuncture

•    Naturopathic Acupuncture

100 hours or less

•    Medical Acupuncture

•    Chiropractic Acupuncture

•    Detox Tech

Kath Bartlett, MS, LAc
Asheville Center for Chinese Medicine

70 Woodfin Place    Suite West Wing Two
Asheville, North Carolina 28801   828.258.2777
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Abbreviated Courses In Acupuncture For Physicians 

  • Sometimes, understanding one’s background can clarify their particular point of view. So in the spirit of “full disclosure” I would like to tell you a little about mine.

    I began my medical career in 1979 when I received my MD degree from Albany Medical College. I trained in diagnostic radiology at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC. I entered private practice and spent 20 years doing full-service hospital radiology. It was at the end of these 20 years that changes occurred in my life, changes that made me look at my direction and commitments. It was at that time in my career when I discovered acupuncture, and the power this medicine has to heal. Please understand, I was awestruck at the conditions acupuncture could effectively treat —- conditions that from my previous medical training I knew were precisely those no one wanted to get stuck with because there was no effective treatment. I am a fellowship-trained interventional radiologist, and I have put needles into arteries, veins, solid organs, abscesses, tumors, pleural cavities, peritoneal cavities….you name it.

    But I had never felt the pull of Qi on a needle, I had never intentionally manipulated a needle to achieve a specific energetic effect, I had never contacted the energy of a meridian, nor used needles themselves, as instruments of healing. Here was a whole new science to learn. And the amazing thing is that it has a 3000 year history with millions upon millions of people undergoing clinical trial in China for 30 centuries!

    Medical Acupuncture Training Is Equivilent To A Self-Educated Acupuncturist

    So I enrolled in a course for physicians to learn “medical acupuncture”. I attended two weekend sessions, watched videotapes, and read one book. This course was based on the work of one physician. The book we read was his book – the videotapes we listened to were him talking, and he gave nearly all of the lectures at the 2 weekends of instruction. On the last day of training, I happened to be sitting next to a doctor from San Diego, and I overheard him say, “My wife knows so much more about acupuncture than I do.”I subsequently found out this doctor’s wife was a licensed acupuncturist. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was enrolled at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon in a Master’s degree program in Classical Chinese Medicine. I will graduate from this same program in June. It is a 4-year program, and I have been able to complete it in 3 years by transferring credits from my medical school training. I feel very strongly that, in order to practice acupuncture at the level of competency which this medicine deserves, one must learn from many professors, observe with many clinical supervisors, and spend at least a few years to learn how to approach a patient in a holistic way with an entirely new set of diagnostic principles.Remember, I am a scientist at heart, and this is the finest science that I have encountered. As a physician who has gone through Western medical training and now training in acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, I assure you that abbreviated courses in acupuncture for physicians pose a serious problem. That problem has to do with efficacy of treatment. Without a comprehensive education in the fundamentals of this science, and without appropriate hours spent in learning complex needling techniques, followed by supervised clinical application of all of this learning, it is not possible to effectively treat the list of diseases which the world now recognizes are amenable to acupuncture intervention.The World Health Organization recognizes the ability of acupuncture to treat the following diseases: asthma, menstrual cramps, arthritis, sciatica, TMJ problems, allergies, anxiety, depression, bladder problems, kidney problems, childhood illness, colds, influenza, cough, bronchitis, constipation, diarrhea, dizziness, ear-nose & throat disorders, fatigue, gynecological disorders, genital herpes, herpetic neuralgia, heart palpitations, immune system deficiency, infertility, insomnia, numbness, poor circulation, PMS, sexual dysfunction, impotence, skin problems, stress-related illnesses, and weight gain or weight loss…and the list goes on.Acupuncture is not a nice, short topic that can be covered during a seminar lasting for a few weekends. Suffice it to say, that it is not possible to treat the difficult diseases listed above after watching videotapes, reading one textbook, and attending two weekends of lecture with needling practice on a few other course participants.I would like to give you a brief case presentation now, to try to illustrate in a nutshell why I am writing this letter. A 57 year old man presented 4 days earlier to the OHSU emergency room with sudden and complete blindness in his right eye. He was seen by an ophthalmologist, underwent carotid ultrasound, an MRI of his brain and MRI angiography , and was told that he had occlusion of his central retinal artery and would have permanent loss of vision in that eye. At the time of presentation his medications included lisinopril, metformin, and aspirin. Fortunately, the patient happened to have an appointment with his chiropractor, who heard the story of this man’s sudden blindness and grim prognosis, and referred the patient to the acupuncture practitioner who worked in the same building. The patient was seen daily for 7 consecutive days for acupuncture treatment. On the second day, he could see a small circle of light in the center of his vision in the blind eye. Day by day that circle of light enlarged, and became clearer. At the end of 7 treatments he had 20/40 vision in the previously blind eye.This is the power of this medicine in the hands of a skilled practitioner. This is what can be accomplished in Oriental Medicine. Someone in Integrative Medicine has given me a definition of their subspecialty as the medicine that “fills in the gaps”. I think this is an apt definition, and there are many gaps in western medicine which need filling. Please give Oriental Medicine a chance by ensuring that practitioners who enter this field are adequately trained. Let’s up the ante, and see whether we can embrace this amazing alternative healing science with practitioners who have enough didactic hours of lecture from a variety of acupuncture faculty, and enough supervised hours of clinical practice so that they are familiar with treating patients with all sorts of maladies such as cancer, asthma, palpitations, constipation, allergies, menstrual disorders….to name just a few common problems.The way forward has been paved by the state of Hawaii. Hawaii requires that medical doctors be trained and tested for competency prior to administering acupuncture to patients. The Attorney General for the state of Hawaii issued a statement on August 18, 2003, declaring that “medical acupuncture” as performed by physicians is not substantially different from any other type of acupuncture, and therefore, physicians performing “medical acupuncture” should be subject to the same laws of licensure and proof of competency as everyone else.We in the acupuncture field are at a crossroads. We can condone physicians doing acupuncture under-trained, unsupervised, unevaluated in terms of competency, or we can strive to raise the standard. I feel strongly that this is a public health issue. I feel strongly that allowing medical doctors with minimal training & without oversight by a non-professional organization is a dangerous and foolhardy policy. I’d like to respectfully remind you that we are talking here about a healthcare profession; we are talking about peoples’ health & well-being; we cannot afford to have a double standard. The general public deserves parity in licensing so that competency can be maintained.I therefore propose that the American Association of Medical Acupuncture evaluate their own training programs and consider complying with the World Health Organization’s recommendations of 1500 hours of training in acupuncture for physicians interested in pursuing this medicine. The WHO standards for physicians performing “medical acupuncture” include 1000 hours of didactic (including needling technique labs) and 500 hours of supervised clinical training, which ensures adequate training for entry level acupuncture. In addition, I feel that physicians should be required to pass the NCCAOM examinations to ensure their competency in acupuncture evaluation and treatment. If the AAMA is willing to adopt these standards of 1500 hours and NCCAOM testing, I believe the future of “medical acupuncture” in the United States would be shifted from a position of tenuous efficacy to one of competency and powerful healing.Dr. Marilyn M. Walkey MD

"Medical Acupuncture" Courses Are Not Producing Fully Trained Acupuncturists

Many states allow physicians, chiropractors, physician’s assistants, physical therapists and dentists to practice acupuncture with only 300 hours of training. This is a relic of 1974, when little was known about acupuncture practice and education.

The 300-hour course for MD’s was designed to give medical researchers the appropriate background necessary to develop and interpret studies on acupuncture. The Medical Acupuncture certification was NOT designed to meet the educational requirements and training necessary to treat patients.

Thirty years later, minimum entry-level standards of competence for acupuncture have evolved, producing fully-trained, effective acupuncturists. Why haven’t educational standards for physicians and dentists been updated to reflect current requirements? And why would anyone want to extend the same inadequate, outdated 300-hour requirement to other health professionals?

If someone, anyone, wishes to practice acupuncture or any other form of healthcare, they should be properly trained and prove their competency before treating the public. Acupuncturists could not hope to practice podiatry or chiropractic with 300 hours of training and no standards of competency. Why would the reverse be different? *5

*5 Acupuncture Society of New York,

Kath Bartlett, MS, LAc
Asheville Center for Chinese Medicine