GETTING EDUCATED HOLISTICALLY
…in Acupuncture and Traditional Oriental Medicine
…at The American Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
AAAOM to be future "Mayo" clinic for Eastern medicine?
THE YOUNGEST ACUPUNCTURE and Chinese medicine school in Minnesota, the four-year-old American Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (AAAOM) is on a “rocket-ship trajectory,” with a new building, a rapidly-growing student body and equally fast-growing clinic patient group, and fast-track movement toward full accreditation.
A recent visitor to the new campus (just west of Rosedale Mall) found a two-story building completely dedicated to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), with four classrooms, 12 clinic treatment rooms, a pleasant patient waiting room with banks of large drawers containing herbal medicines, a large space upstairs for T'ai chi and Qi Gong classes, and beautiful Chinese-art wall hangings. There are even Chinese herbs growing in pots at the entrance. A class was in session, patients were receiving treatments in treatment rooms, and a supervising doctor moved quietly between the waiting room and treatment rooms.
We talked first with Dr. Changzhen Gong, president of the school, who showed us the school’s library, one of the most complete Chinese medicine libraries in the United States. Dr. Gong is a mathematician and economist, married to Dr. Wei Liu, who is one of the core faculty.
Tell us about TCM.
Changzhen Gong (CG): There are a lot of misconceptions in this country about Chinese medicine. Barely a few years ago, if you asked, “What is traditional Chinese medicine?” some people would say “Acupuncture.” Other people would say, “Ginseng!” Others would say “Gingko!” But really Chinese medicine is a complete medical system which covers the whole variety of health conditions, with techniques that include acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary therapy, Tui Na, Qi Gong, and T'ai chi. There are also submodalities like auricular (ear) acupuncture, head acupuncture, hand acupuncture, foot acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, and so many more in the whole system.
TCM is holistic medicine with 4,000 years’ continuous evolving history. It is the most time-tested medicine in the world. It looks at the human individually, holistically; it looks for different possibilities, it deals with different emotions; there are so many factors involved. When they sit down together with the practitioner the patient feels, “We’re on the same level, I’m not to just mechanically follow your directions, I can present my whole self to this doctor.” So that’s really key, that relationship is a very important factor.
You’ve received a national award from TCM World for the quality of your faculty. What are your criteria for hiring teachers?
CG: They should have at least a master's degree in TCM or Oriental medicine. They spend five years for the MD degree, and beyond that they spend three years for the master's degree. And above that, they may spend three more years for a doctorate degree in Chinese medicine. So, for faculty members to be on our team, to teach a core course, they need to have a master's degree in Chinese medicine, and also eight years’ teaching or clinical experience. If they have a doctorate degree, they need to have five more years of teaching and practice experience. All our key faculty members have this kind of background. This is the strongest team across the country.
What are your areas of specialty in terms of health conditions treated?
CG: That’s our uniqueness. Although our program is condensed into 2,805 hours, we try our best to fit in all the specialties: TCM internal medicine, TCM gynecology, TCM pediatrics, TCM geriatrics, TCM dermatology, and we also have a special elective course for things like eye, nose, ear, and throat disorders. And because many patients come to an acupuncture or Oriental medicine clinic for pain, and for muscular and neurological disorders, we have two special courses: TCM for neurological disorders, and TCM for musculoskeletal disorders.
There seem to be two philosophies of Chinese medicine in this country. One is a really traditional “the way it’s done in China” approach. The other seems to combine that with a more psychological, spiritual approach. Where are you in all that?
CG: Good point. I’ll give you a good answer. Jan 1, 1979, was the day the United States and China resumed a diplomatic relationship, after former President Richard Nixon opened the door through his historic visit. But in 1972 and 1973 the first group of people in this country were already asking, “Where can I study acupuncture?” And at that time there were no diplomatic relationships. So there was a big difficulty for those explorers. But they found another way: They went to Europe.
Worsley, in England.
CG: Right, John Worsley was the professor who introduced acupuncture to the first generation of American practitioners. And so the five-element acupuncture model was introduced here, which is very popular among that first generation. Most of those practitioners, and their schools, are on the East Coast. But if you look at the other side of the United States, all the schools in California are adopting the traditional Chinese medicine traditional model [directly] from China
But the five-element theory is in both approaches. Is it the use of herbs that distinguishes between them?
CG: Well, that’s one difference, but traditional Chinese medicine is a complete medical system with a theoretical foundation, various technical modalities and wide clinical applications. The most important thing is that it is built on a holistic philosophy and pattern differentiation. If you and I come in with similar headaches, our patterns might be different, and so we should be treated differently. Actually the tongue diagnosis, the pulse diagnosis, the face assessment, and all the other diagnostics are pieces of the whole pattern differentiation diagnosis. And this is the core of the TCM style of acupuncture.
There are many different styles; beyond the five-element there is Japanese bioacupuncture, Vietnamese acupuncture, French energetics, medical acupuncture, Korean hand therapy, they all talk about individual based, but the whole system for pattern differentiation is not there. All these different modalities have grown out from TCM. They are branches; they are offshoots. Maybe in some areas they are further developed. But here, TCM is still the trunk of the tree. In our program we expose students to these other acupuncture traditions after they have a strong TCM foundation.
Our attention is on developing an extremely high quality program in Minnesota. My faculty members even say, “There is a Mayo Clinic for Western medicine. Why not a very highly reputable clinic for Eastern medicine in Minnesota?!” That’s why we pushed off and made this move. We wanted to have a central location for the Twin Cities and for the whole region.
A wonderful vision for the future! Right now, though, you’re a new school; what is your accreditation situation?
CG: In November 2001, we gained candidacy status from the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (the only agency that accredits acupuncture and Oriental medicine schools in the U.S.). By July 1 we will send in the self-study report, which is the core of the accreditation process, and they should have it reviewed by next year. Our target date is to receive full accreditation by 2003.
What is the status of your graduates before that?
CG: Because we have candidacy, our graduates can take the national board. They can also transfer credits to and from accredited schools. After passing the national board, they can apply for licensing from the different states. We’re just graduating our first people this year, but we’re very confident that if they go through this program successfully, they will do well on the board.
After you get full accreditation, will there be federal loans available?
CG: Yes, that’s the only thing we don’t have now. But Minnesota is very supportive; there are state loans available, called SELF loans, from the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office.
Students talk about AAAOM
Next we talked with John Walters, an AAAOM third-year student who previously spent almost two decades in the field of managed care, most recently as director of operations for Medica, and also with Amy Olson, a student who is also the school’s communications director.
Why did you choose this school in the first place?
John Walters (JW): I met Dr. Gong back in 1995-96 when I was being treated myself as a patient at one of the TCM health centers affiliated with the school. After we talked about his plan for a school, he asked me to get involved, and so I just started taking classes one at a time, and I began to enjoy it so much that here I am, three years along!
Tell me about the practice clinic. Dr. Gong told me that there are 840 hours of clinical training: 240 in the first two years and 600 in the third and fourth years. I understand that in the first two years the students are observing the doctors, and in the third and fourth years they are practicing, under observation from the doctors. How busy is the clinic?
JW: The numbers have picked up quickly in the last year or so, and I’m now fairly consistently busy in the practice clinic.
Amy Olson (AO): The clinic is open six days a week. We’re open two evenings a week, and we’re open Saturdays all day. We have excellent doctors. They are really experts at what they do, and they are wonderful with patient rapport, so people want to come back.
Why do you think students choose to come here, as opposed to anyplace else?
JW: I think the credentials of the faculty, the fact that they are Chinese trained, the fact that they have quite credible backgrounds in terms of their publishing, in terms of their clinical experience, both in clinic settings and in hospital settings, their teaching experience in China, all of that speaks really highly of the faculty. Also, a significant number of the faculty are a cohort from the leading TCM universities in China, and so they understand each other, and they sort of leverage each other’s specific areas of expertise and training.
Also, this is a small enough institution that it’s fairly familial, and people know that the academic team is very accessible. And the student body is of diverse makeup in terms of socioeconomic, academic, professional lives, and I think that brings a certain robustness and flavor to an academic body.
AO: The faculty is absolutely phenomenal, every single one of them. For example, prospective students who sit in on Dr. Lu’s theory class are very impressed with his ability to communicate TCM in a way that is understandable and makes people excited about wanting to learn more. The depth and breadth of their expertise is overwhelming! I think most students in our school feel so fortunate to be able to learn from them.
JW: Yes, I think a lot of students recognize that they’re getting the genuine article here, the real McCoy. And every student question is genuinely considered. These folks go out of their way to really understand the question, they’ll do their best to answer it, and if they don’t have the answer, they’ll probably be in their office at the break or after class, searching through their textbooks or talking to one another to get it, and then come back with it at another time.
AO: I think the thing that strikes a lot of people when they come to our school is that the students and doctors and patients have a rapport with each other that often people describe as just a feeling of community. I think that’s what draws a lot of people to us, the sense that this is a community of people who are working towards the same goals. People do study groups together here, and they get together outside of class and do things, and people are developing really close friendships with other students and with the doctors. And it all comes together to create this really positive energy that draws people in.
An AAAOM open house is scheduled on Sunday, July 28, from 2-5 p.m. The school is located at 1925 West County Road B2, near Rosedale Mall. School number: 651-631-0204. The faculty-student clinic offers professional treatment at a reduced rate. Clinic number: 651-631-0216. Website: www.aaaom.org.
Judy Steele is a living-skills teacher and coach with a specialty in alternative medicine approaches for mental health and personal growth. Website: www.schoolforliving.org. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: 612-929-0489 (Minneapolis MN).