In the State of Florida, an Acupuncture Physician is a Physician who is licensed by the Florida Department of Health to practice Acupuncture. In case you’re wondering, all physicians are typically referred to as Doctor, as in, “Hi, I’m Dr. Shark.”
Medical licensing is regulated by the states, so the specific requirements for medical licenses vary from state to state. Several states, such as Alabama, still do not have a licensure process to practice Acupuncture.
This definition brings up two questions:
- What is Acupuncture as defined by Florida law?
- What is required to receive this license?
First off, “Acupuncture” as defined by Florida includes a lot more than the practice of Acupuncture itself, which is essentially the insertion of very fine needles at specific locations in order to produce a physiological response which results in pain relief or the activation of healing. In the state of Florida, Acupuncture means the entire system of Chinese Medicine. This includes diagnosis, nutrition, physical/orthopedic exam, herbal medicine, supplement prescription, rehabilitative exercise, intramuscular injection of non-drug substances (such as vitamins or saline), and the ordering and interpretation of lab tests and images (such as blood work or x-rays). The primary difference between what a Medical Doctor (MD) and an Acupuncture Physician (AP) can do is that the MD can prescribe pharmaceutical drugs and an AP cannot.
What is responsible for this difference? It’s the focus of the medical training of each respective physician. Both MD’s and AP’s spend 4 years in medical school, with similar prerequisites for science education in undergrad. Both physicians study important subjects such as Anatomy, Physiology, Pathology, Pharmacology, Internal Medicine, Orthopedics, Dermatology, and External Medicine. But there is a major difference in the way these subjects are approached.
The driving force behind the difference in approach is the difference in treatment. Medical Doctors’ primary treatments are pharmaceutical drugs and surgery. Their diagnosis primarily directly restates the symptom (e.g. high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, migraines) and seeks to find supporting markers on specific tests which indicate the need for medical interventions—because drugs and surgeries are designed to treat these single symptoms individually. Acupuncture Physicians’ primary treatments are natural interventions that stimulate the healing process in the body either through activating a specific neurological response (Acupuncture) or by providing particular nutrients or substances (Herbal Medicine, Nutrition, Supplementation). As a result, MDs’ diagnostic processes tend to be more specific (focused on one abnormality at a time), and APs’ more holistic (focusing on the entire body or entire functional system).
There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. In general, MD’s are unparalleled in their treatment of emergency conditions. Because of their specificity, they can quickly treat and control life-threatening occurrences like heart attack, inability to breath and major traumas. If the threat of death is imminent, the Emergency Room is probably the best place for you. But because of this focus on health problems as single, isolated events, conventional Medical Doctors are often unable to produce satisfactory results when it comes to conditions that are not immediately life threatening: chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic pain, auto-immune disease and mood disorders. Some Medical Doctors are recognizing this failure and seeking additional training after medical school in a relatively new field called Functional Medicine (FM). An MD who practices Functional Medicine is striving to be far more holistic, though there is a lot of variance between practitioners since this holistic training is not required for their medical license. Though many FM doctors still tend toward their original training of single-problem focus, if you have a chronic condition and the option of choosing an MD trained in Functional Medicine over one trained only in the conventional system, definitely pick the FM doctor. They will be much more likely to consider effective non-drug approaches.
Acupuncture Physicians, on the other hand, are trained from the get-go to look at the body through a holistic lens, that is to say that they are analyzing how various systems fit together in order to determine the root of the malfunction. Rather than zeroing in on a single symptom, such as nasal allergies or an abnormal lab result, AP’s are trained to look at really big picture indicators like digestive function, inflammation and constriction of tissues and blood vessels, detailed health history and the relationship between “physical” and “mental” disorders. This holistic approach gives AP’s the advantage when it comes to pain and chronic disorders. The reason is that chronic disorders are never isolated, single body-part events. They always involve multiple systems and evolve through complex mechanisms. If they didn’t, they would never become chronic; they would simply heal themselves or be quickly eradicated by a short-term problem-focused approach like those typically offered by an MD. And there is no drug on the market that corrects the neurological pain impulse the way that Acupuncture does. Pain medications merely dull or mask the pain in the hope that the body will get better on its own in the meantime. My friend Bob Doane puts it best, MD’s treat the symptom and hope the problem goes away; AP’s treat the problem and hope the symptom goes away.
I would be remiss if I didn’t address the frightening new practice of MD’s and Chiropractors (DC’s) performing Acupuncture in Florida. These practitioners are required to have little to no training in order to perform needling on their patients. I say needling, because they are really not practicing Acupuncture, which as we discussed is a specific holistic therapy; they are merely memorizing some symptom-focused protocols and applying them across the board.
Well, you say, I just have one problem. Why not just let my DC or MD do my Acupuncture? Their appalling lack of training, that’s why! An AP has about 3,000 hours of training and over 1,000 hours internship in the specific diagnostic system and needling technique which allows them to get results. MD’s are not required to be trained at all in order to perform needling, because their license already covers sticking needles in you! If they elect for membership in the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, they are required to have a whopping 220 hours of training, less than 1/10th of what an AP has. Chiropractors (DC’s) are only required to have 100 hours training to stick needles in you in Florida! This is crazy, folks. I would never let someone with so little training treat me. I certainly would never attempt to adjust your neck or perform an appendectomy when you come in for Acupuncture, and DC’s and MD’s shouldn’t be sticking needles in people and calling it Acupuncture.
The one disclaimer I will add to this article is that all of my explanations here are broad generalizations. I did this to simplify the explanation of different types of medical license. However, all doctors are people, and people are individuals with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. In every field there are excellent, qualified individuals who really do get the big picture and know what they’re doing. I have been educated and inspired by many Medical Doctors and Chiropractors through the years. While I’ve studied with a few really outstanding Acupuncture Physicians, I actually get most of my medical information from work done by exceptional MD’s and DC’s. Some of these doctors do have extensive training beyond those required by law or by certification boards. If you’re wondering about a doctor’s training and background—just make sure to ask; don’t assume they’re knowledgeable about a field that may be out of their area of expertise.
I hope I’ve given you a pretty good overview of what it means to be an Acupuncture Physician. I’m happy to answer questions left in the comments section. We’ll be starting up a video blog soon, so please leave your questions in the comments section. Once we get rolling, we’ll answer a question every week. Be well!