Acupuncture Goes Mainstream

January 28, 1995|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writer

One of the fastest-growing medical schools in Baltimore-Washington's state-of-the-art health care corridor teaches neither heart surgery nor cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The only subject at this school is an art 3,000 years old: acupuncture.

One of just two dozen such schools nationwide, Traditional Acupuncture Institute has made downtown Columbia an American hub for Chinese medicine.

"With acupuncture becoming more widely known and recognized for its benefits, we've had an enormous influx of applicants seeking to learn from us," said Robert M. Duggan, co-founder and president of the institute.

Enrollment has nearly doubled to 113 in the past two years, prompting the biggest expansion in the school's history. That rapid growth is part of a national trend, as acupuncture continues to move from being denigrated as a "fringe" medical treatment to assuming a position within mainstream health care.

Although acupuncture most commonly is associated with the insertion of tiny needles into specific points of the body to relieve pain, the institute teaches that proper acupuncture treatment revolves around a broader Chinese philosophy of health based on the natural ebb and flow of life.

"It used to be with acupuncture that the first thing people thought of was needles, like the long needles they were scared of when they were kids," said Dianne M. Connelly, co-founder of the school and head of its board of trustees. "More and more people are understanding that needles are such a small part of the basic philosophy of acupuncture and are more willing to try it."

Despite some mixed reviews in mainstream medical journals, acupuncture's popularity among patients and future practitioners continues to grow both in Maryland and the nation.

In Maryland alone, the number of licensed acupuncturists has increased from seven in 1975 to about 280 today, half of whom are alumni of the Columbia institute, said Mr. Duggan, who is also chairman of the State Board of Physician Quality Assurance's acupuncture advisory council.

A study of health care use in 1990 -- the most recent data available -- found that one in three Americans tried some type of alternative medical treatment that year, ranging from acupuncture to herbal cures to chiropractic. Americans spent $13.7 billion on such treatments in 1990, about 2 percent of the nation's total health care bill.

The medical establishment has begun to recognize the potential value of alternative medicine.

The National Institutes of Health has opened a small but symbolic Office of Alternative Medicine to begin gathering statistical rather than anecdotal evidence of the effects of alternative medical treatments. Several medical schools -- including University of Maryland -- are conducting studies.

But with the general population's increasing use of acupuncture has come a shortage of qualified practitioners, because for many years the subject was learned almost exclusively through one-on-one apprenticeship.

"The profession is really growing in acceptance, and the need for acupuncturists is blossoming," said Dolores Llanso of the National Accreditation Commission for Schools and Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in Washington. "More schools are opening and those that have been in existence are trying to expand."

Since 1985, the number of nationally accredited schools has tripled from six to 18, and eight more are in the process of earning that status. The U.S. Department of Education has approved federal tuition loans for students at many of the schools, adding to the programs' increasing legitimacy.

The Traditional Acupuncture Institute is hardly a newcomer to Columbia. The 2,500-square-foot clinic opened in 1975 in the American City Building, the original headquarters of community founder James W. Rouse.

The institute began instructing students in 1980, and was awarded the power to grant master's degrees by the Maryland (( State Higher Education Commission eight years later.

Today, the institute's 17,000 square feet boasts seven licensed acupuncturists, 22 treatment rooms and meeting rooms and classrooms, as well as a coffee shop and Chinese medicine bookstore. Among its more prominent patients is Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who labeled the institute a "national resource" in a congressional hearing.

Despite existing in the shadows of the Johns Hopkins medical school to the north and NIH to the south, the institute and clinic have thrived during their 20 years in Columbia, thanks in large part to the state's tradition of liberal acupuncture laws.

Maryland was among the first of 36 states to permit acupuncture to be performed by qualified practitioners, rather than limiting it to licensed physicians. In contrast to most other states, Maryland's Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance provider has covered acupuncture for the past dozen years.

"Our location has been very fortunate because Maryland has been a state very friendly to acupuncture," Mr. Duggan said.

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