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Herbal Explorations

TCM Journeys: Joseph Davis, 2007 Herbal Times Scholarship Winner

By Rosie Munger, nuherbs Co.

On a rainy Friday afternoon I traveled mere blocks from the nuherbs Co. warehouse to Octagon Community Acupuncture clinic to pay a visit to 2007 Herbal Times Scholarship winner Joseph Davis. Located on a fairly busy street in Oakland, CA, the clinic is a quiet oasis, removed from the sounds of cars whizzing by. With eight large recliner chairs in a circle, this was different from any acupuncture clinic I had been to, as I have only been a patient in an individual setting. Although I could instantly feel a calmness sweep over me upon entering the clinic and meeting Joe, I was still skeptical about how I might feel if I were lying in one of the chairs with seven other people around me.

Opening a Community Acupuncture clinic was not on his mind when he entered school at ACCHS, but fairly early on someone told Joe about the model and he realized that his problems with Clinic at school were twofold. People just were not coming in enough, mostly due to cost. They saw a lot of Medical patients who were covered for two visits per month, which just was insufficient. (Now, they see Medical patients at Octagon in between their ACCHS Clinic visits.) There also seemed to be a slow evolution towards an acupuncturist as a therapist. In his view, a check-in, a diagnostic period and a connection with the patient is essential, but hearing a patient´s life story is somewhat unnecessary for the medicine to work. The Community Model clicked with him and he began to talk with Dr. Jorge Nunez, the ACCHS Clinic Supervisor, about how Chinese medicine could reach more people and how more segments of the Bay Area population could be served.

Joseph graduated in 2008 and relatively soon after, he and Jorge opened Octagon clinic in the Foothill/Laurel district of Oakland, an area with a large minority population. Although they do not get too much foot traffic at their current location, they have built up a steady base of patients from the community. Statistically, according to many studies, middle-aged, middle-upper class Caucasian women are the most common seekers of acupuncture treatments; interestingly, middle-aged females are also the most common treatment seekers from this predominantly Latino neighborhood. They also see a lot of patients from ACCHS referrals, as well as people from 30 minutes to an hour away, all due to word of mouth, which tends to generate waves of people and thus an incredibly varied patient demographic. Because the cost is not a prohibitive barrier to trying it as it might be for a private session, people are more willing to experience a treatment based of a friend´s recommendation.

I heard genuine excitement in Joe´s voice as he spoke about the increasing number of Community Acupuncture Clinics in the East Bay. CA gets more people in the door, and the more clinics, the better. Even with some of the potentially positive changes on the horizon, the profession is vulnerable right now. He believes that the more people we have that can experience the medicine, the more advocates we will have. Particularly in this difficult economic climate, CA provides access to many people who do not have the financial ability to afford individual appointments. In Joe´s ideal system, Community Acupuncture and private practices would both flourish, and acupuncturists would rise to the role of primary care physician by championing the holistic approach of the medicine and philosophy. Not wanting to overwhelm themselves or their patients, Octagon has slowly added offerings to their clinic. Several months ago they added herbal medicine ($10 for both the consult and the teapills!), as well as tui na a couple times per week. Their Qi Gong classes have been very popular, and once the teacher returns from retreat they will offer them again. Jorge, Joe and Michelle Hirsch, a 2009 ACCHS graduate, are in the process of finding a much larger space in the wonderfully eclectic Temescal neighborhood of Oakland. Hopefully, with more space, they could offer more frequent movement classes and nutritional counseling, thus trying to reach even more people.

I could see how Joe would inspire both confidence and a relaxed feeling in his patients – I certainly felt at ease speaking with him. He is attentive and earnest, and his passion for healing is evident in the way he gets excited when speaking about the clinic. The clinic operates on a walk-in basis so I was thrilled when right at 3:00pm a patient walked in. Two more people arrived soon after, each with different ailments, and of different ages, sexes and races. In addition to needles, Joe used electrostim and heat lamps and blankets on the patients, if required. I could tell that each person felt well-treated, comfortable and happy to be there. Apart from the occasional loud talker, Joe mentioned that people generally respect the quiet, except when they might grumble that a favorite chair is occupied. People seemed immediately comfortable and easily relaxed, despite the public atmosphere, and I could almost feel the healing vibes from my perch on the couch. Joe said that patients are generally appreciative that treatment is available at a reasonable rate (sliding scale of $10-$30, patient´s choice) and their expectations before coming to the clinic are generally consistent with what they receive, which is an important part of the success of the model.

Joe is a relatively new practitioner and sees the community clinic as an ideal setting for a "fledging acupuncturist." "Most people exit school and flounder," he said. Chances are they are not making the money they thought they might, but more than that, they are not gaining experience or building on their skills because they are not able to put them to use. The chances of them returning to their previous job or finding a job outside of TCM are too great because it is easy to get discouraged if you cannot see lots of patients or afford to support yourself. Joe suggests that perhaps these clinics are an excellent way to bridge this gap – the newer practitioners get to see many patients and develop their skills and confidence while practicing the field they love – and as a result, acupuncturists might feel more confident taking on the role of primary care physician. They may not make a lot of money in those years, but chances are they might not anyway because it can be so difficult to start a clinic and be immediately self-supporting. After 5-10 years of hundreds of patients a month, a doctor´s personal preferences and desired specialties might crystallize. Joe likened it to a post-doc/grad position before they develop their private practice- most people go to acupuncture school because they want to provide care. The newly licensed are competent, they just need more practice! There is so much to learn about the profession and all the ways that TCM doctors can help people that several years of schooling is just not enough. I found Joe´s thinking rather brilliant. Based on conversations with acupuncturists, the reality of earning $70 per hour and seeing lots of patients right out of school is low. This seems like an ideal and realistic solution.

The goal of Octagon Community Acupuncture and the CA model in general is to provide accessible Chinese medicine for the East Bay; it is very clear that they are succeeding. The clinic is a work of love for Jorge, Michelle and Joe, as most all clinics are for acupuncture practitioners. I left my meeting with Joe feeling inspired. No matter what your dreams are, acupuncture-related or otherwise, a clear vision, good partners and, ideally, a spirit of giving can only help you on your way. Needless to say, all my skepticism has vanished, and I´m ready to drop on by next week.