PIHMA Brings Acupuncture to Arizona
By Catherine Niemiec, JD, L.Ac
As a Filipino-American leaving my home in Arizona to study law in San Francisco, I had no idea that I would discover my roots in medicine and bring them back home to Arizona along with my law degree. After graduating from University of California-Hastings and while practicing law in the Bay area, I fell ill to the cold, damp weather of which San Francisco is famous. After a few bouts of bronchitis, a nurse practitioner finally encouraged me to seek out a Chinese herbalist for relief. Much to my surprise, the herbs I received from a Chinese herbalist, who spoke no English but simply looked at my tongue and palpated my pulses, gave me immediate and effective relief. I was hooked and went on to attend school to become certified in Chinese Herbology. Later, I found out that my great-grandfather had been an herbalist in the Philippines, using many of the same herbs that I studied. This was only the beginning of my journey, and upon returning home to Arizona to study further, I found that our state lacked educational institutions and a licensing law in acupuncture and Oriental medicine, unlike the majority of other states in the nation.
Motivated to ensure that Arizonans would have the same access to fully-trained acupuncturists and practitioners of Oriental Medicine, I worked with the local acupuncture association to get a licensing law established which would provide nationally certified, comprehensively-trained acupuncturists with 2000 to 3000 hours of training the appropriate standards of practice and oversight, distinguishing them from other conventional healthcare providers in Arizona who typically received only 60 to 200 hours of acupuncture training. As part of the process to get a governing board established, it was also necessary to establish the educational institutions in the state which would provide both support and legitimacy to the legislative effort.
The Phoenix Institute of Herbal Medicine & Acupuncture (PIHMA), College and Clinic, held its first class in February of 1996. Created by a group of faculty, students, and administrators, the alternating weekend schedule attracted students and teachers who were able to work while obtaining their training. I financed the start-up with my primary asset from becoming an attorney: my credit cards. Within two years, the acupuncture law was enacted, and PIHMA went on to grow, expand to its new location at 301 E. Bethany Home Road, and eventually become the first accredited college of Oriental medicine in the Valley. Since then, PIHMA has graduated many students, some of whom have become the first acupuncturists at Banner Hospitals in the Valley. Other students have successfully started their own practices or joined with other healthcare providers in integrated medical practices. PIHMA was named as one of the Fastest Growing Companies by the Arizona Business Journal (2003) and was awarded the Arizona Small Business Development Center Success Award (2005).
Like the other 60 colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine across the nation, PIHMA has a community clinic where pre-graduate interns pair with a licensed faculty supervisor to provide low-cost acupuncture and herbs to the public. Often cited as “the best deal in town”, the PIHMA clinic offers quality treatments which are highly effective to relieve the symptoms of chronic disease and pain, allergies and asthma, gynecological and fertility disorders, colds & flus, cancer and diabetes, depression and anxiety, aging and sports injuries, and more.
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies published its report this year on the Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) by the American Public. According to the report, more than a third of American adults report using some form of CAM, such as acupuncture, with total visits to CAM providers each year now exceeding those to primary-care physicians. An estimated 15 million adults now take herbal remedies or high-dose vitamins along with prescription drugs.1
Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine is one of the most popular and widely used forms of complementary and alternative medicine. Over 3000 years old, this medicine is one of the oldest, most studied and most reliable forms of medicine to date. Based on a system of energy (Qi) that runs through the body along pathways called meridians, Oriental (or Asian) medicine is able to effectively deal with illness and disease where conventional medicine often fails. This is primarily due to the fact that this system addresses the interconnected energy system that runs through the body and is linked to the energy in the environment, as well as the emotions of the person. As the first mind-body medicine, it is routinely acknowledged that emotions cause imbalance and disease in the body, and conversely, physical imbalances can correspondingly affect the emotions. Because of the energy pathways, it is easy to see why the headache at one’s temple is related to the gout in the big toe. Indeed, one can needle a point on the foot to numb the mouth area so that a dentist can operate with out anesthesia. Similarly, another point on the foot regularly and effectively turns a breeched baby before birth.
While this medicine provides relief to so many, it is still hampered by a general lack of understanding and acceptance by mainstream medicine. Even though the National Institute of Health (NIH) has dedicated funding to the study and expansion of this and other CAM medicines, Oriental medicine is still viewed warily by western practitioners. This is slowly changing, but as with many things, money and profits are part of the game. Oriental medicine can provide a real benefit to our government through less expensive healthcare, allowing government funds to be used for more complex cases or in the creation of well medicine, as opposed to “sick” medicine. Studies have shown that acupuncture reduces the need for surgery, length of hospital stays, and lost days of employment.2 Nonetheless, pharmaceutical companies which cannot profit from the inability to patent natural herbal remedies would prefer to see herbal remedies removed from public access, and western practitioners feel the financial loss from patient-directed self-care with CAM modalities. Furthermore, there is the issue of FDA regulation of herbal products, with the balance of consumers’ right to self-care balanced by their lack of education in herbal medicine. All of this points to the need for recognition of appropriately trained practitioners in the field of Oriental medicine, and the willingness of practitioners from both western and Oriental medicine to work together and trust one another, despite speaking “different” languages.
As an herbalist and as president of an Oriental medical college, I see the potential for Oriental medicine to work with western medicine to create a healthcare system that is truly effective, more supportive of the patient, safer and more cost-efficient. The solution to our healthcare crisis is right here in front of us, and yet, the two parallel universes do not intersect. Perhaps it is up to our legislature to mandate the relationship between the two, forcing both sides to create a system that works better than the present one. But for now, like other members of the public, I visit my primary-care healthcare provider and then take matters into my own hands and do what I must using CAM modalities. The rewards are obvious to me, as I hold my new infant son, born despite the admonition from my doctors that I would probably not be able to conceive, yet through the use of my herbal tonics, dietary changes, and acupuncture, he was born healthy and without the use of drugs or surgery. And as other members of the public, I share my experiences with others, and look forward to the day when everyone understands how medicine and healing should really work.
Catherine Niemiec, JD, L.Ac. is the President and Founder of the Phoenix Institute of Herbal Medicine & Acupuncture (PIHMA), College & Clinic, the Valley’s only accredited college of Asian Medicine.