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A treatment that can break clinician-patient barriers

October 17, 2016
by David Suomela, DOM, AP
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Whether we like it or not, create it or not, a hierarchy between practitioner and patient too often creates barriers to communication and understanding. Patients in recovery settings look up to both clinicians and staff as “having it all figured out.” It is essential that these individuals know that we don’t have it all figured out. In fact, we have our own “stuff” to deal with, and life is an ever-changing series of experiences, challenges and joys that is best when shared.

First, let me define my use of “stuff.” I like to explain to my patients that we all have our stuff to deal with in life, be it stress, work, family, money, pain, injury, disability, weight, relationships—the list goes on. I have my stuff, you have your stuff, and our patients have their stuff. Our job is not to take away patients' stuff. Our job is to facilitate patients' ability to handle their stuff, giving them positive outlets and tools so that this is possible.

How do we accomplish this? One way is to put practitioner, staff and patient side by side and allow all of them to experience a treatment that is designed to help them deal with their stuff. That treatment is acupuncture.

Acupuncture is an age-old, tested modality that is now merging with modern science to be better understood and utilized. Here are some of the mechanisms of action of acupuncture that research has documented:

  • Dramatic improvement to blood flow and breathing rate during needle stimulation.

  • Increased production of endogenous opioid peptides (needed for optimal immune system function), such as beta-endorphins and Met-enkephalin.

  • Positive changes regarding neurotransmitters, including adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol levels, and serotonin and norepinephrine.

  • Increased circulation, homeostasis, wound healing, immune function, and micro-neurological function, and improved autonomic nervous system function.

Impactful component

By adding this modality, facilities can dramatically increase completion of programs, reduce the need for and cost of medical intervention, and reduce recidivism. We have a great deal of independent research to prove this, and we share the data with facilities on an individual basis.

It is very important to note that this is not a stand-alone treatment and it does not interfere with any existing programs. This is simply integrated into those programs.

Treatment frequency varies depending on the stage of recovery. At the beginning of care, treatments are recommended daily until cravings, anxiety and pain are significantly reduced. As a person improves, treatments will begin to be spaced out until being delivered on an as-needed basis.

These treatments are done in group settings of anywhere from five to 25 people sitting comfortably while needles are placed into specific locations primarily in the ear to initiate a reaction that affects the body, mind, and yes, the spirit. Why we are so scared of the word “spirit” in our healthcare system I have yet to understand, but that is another discussion altogether.

The unique setting that this creates breaks down the barriers between patient and practitioner as the two sit side by side, and all involved realize that we all are dealing with life and we all could use a little help along the way.

Program refinements

This treatment is not new. It has been practiced for more than four decades in the United States and has been used in countless settings from hospitals to jails, and now even by our own military (much information can be found by searching “battlefield acupuncture”).

What is different about how we have modeled our program is that we are allowing four faculty/staff members to participate during each session at no additional cost. Why do we do this? First of all, because these people need a little help too, because this work can be hard on the heart, and because they deserve help with their stuff.

Second, we believe that without breaking down these barriers, the program is far less effective, and because leading by example is the best and only way to lead. When you seat the psychologist, a counselor, an admissions officer, the owner, or the chef next to the patient in any stage of recovery, the unity of the human condition becomes so apparent for all involved.

The treatment lasts for 30 to 60 minutes once the points are put in, and all involved remain silent for the entirety of the session once the last person is under treatment. This silence is not difficult to achieve but is always awesome to witness. The physician providing the treatment remains attending the entire time. I choose to use this time to go into a meditative state while still being available for anyone who might need assistance.

I find that going into meditation sets the tone. I don’t want to control the tone. “Control” is not a word I like to use because it doesn’t go well together with healthcare in recovery. Setting the tone is a very different method.

Integrate this modality into your existing programs. It works! As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”


David Suomela, DOM, AP, is a primary care provider who is board-certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) as well as Florida- and Utah-licensed, and is the founder and medical director of Broward County, Fla.-based Acuintegration, Inc. He provides an integrative approach to health by combining acupuncture and modern medical techniques. He has created a proprietary treatment that is integrated into recovery settings, allowing facilities to help patients address addiction, cravings, pain and stress.