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Chinese Alternative Medicine Lures Many in a Recession

New America Media, News Report, Vivian Po Posted: Oct 26, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO When Ahmad Elaydi started experiencing headaches and numbness in his left arm two months ago he had very few options for treatment.

We have no insurance, Elaydi explained.

The 50-year-old Palestinian Americans daily income from his deli business in San Francisco had plummeted from $600 to $250 this year, forcing him to cancel his familys Blue Cross heath care plan.

Fearing that his pain and numbness might be the result of a minor stroke, Elaydi went to San Francisco General Hospital and St. Marys Medical Center for a body scan and evaluation. He received bills totaling $60,000, but there was no sign of recovery. Elaydi was in desperate need of an affordable alternative. The numbness in his arm was preventing from him from carrying heavy boxes, and he couldnt afford to hire an extra employee to help at the deli.

A friend told Elaydi about ACTCM Auricular Clinic, funded by American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which has been offering free services for more than a decade. Located at 555 De Haro Street in San Francisco, the clinic offers ear acupuncture treatments by stimulating external acupuncture points on the patients ears. It is open four days a week, for four hours per day to walk-in clients.

After several acupuncture treatments, Elaydi said his headaches went away, though he still has numbness in his arm.

Patients like Elaydi who can no longer afford health care are flocking to local acupuncture clinics for free Chinese medicine treatments. This year, the number of walk-ins at the ACTCM clinic has nearly doubled. During one four-hour session in September a record 71 patients walked into the clinic, said Pam Olton, a professor who supervises the program. From April to September, Olton and the medical interns she supervises have provided free treatments to approximately 2,900 people, she said.

What I am seeing is an increase in our [patients] demographics, said Olton. New people are visiting our clinics.

Since the economic downturn, Olton said she noticed her clientele shift from low-income families, students and homeless people to middle-class, white and unemployed patients.

Those who wouldnt come before are coming to our clinics, said Olton.

Elaydi recently enrolled in Healthy San Francisco, a program that makes health care services accessible to the citys uninsured residents. He can now get Western medical treatments at a lower price, but he continues to go for the free acupuncture treatments. On a recent visit he even brought his wife and daughter along.

The waiting room at the acupuncture clinic also includes repeat customers. Mia Montanez Smith, a 46-year-old former real estate agent, said she had been seeking help for her injured ankle and hands since an auto accident two years ago. Unlike Elaydi, Smith is familiar with Chinese medicine. She visited both private acupuncturists and physicians before switching to the free clinic.

You have to survive in this economy, said Smith, who lost her health insurance when her husband was laid off last year from his job as a butcher. We have a rather tight budget with our savings going down.

Nearly half of the patients who visit the clinic are uninsured, according to a survey by Cesar Marcano, a 54-year-old student at the ACTCM. Out of 40 patients Marcano surveyed at the clinic in April, 43 percent were uninsured. However, he said he suspected the number to be even higher because at least 10 people did not return the questionnaire and some of those surveyed did not provide answers. Marcano also found that nearly all of the patients earned a monthly income of less than $2,400.

Being free is the major reason people are visiting the clinic, said Olton.

But the increase in the number of patients hasnt increased the amount of cash tips patients give to the clinic. In fact, donations have dropped from an estimated $150 per session last year to about $50, Olton said.

The economic recession might also be the reason private Chinese medicine practitioners are seeing a decline in the number of patients.

We are seeing an average of a 20 to 30 percent drop in business in our members, said Jenny Ou, northern regional manager of United California Practitioners of Chinese Medicine (UCPCM), an association of nearly 400 Chinese medicine practitioners in the state.

Unemployed people have to pay bills and make ends meet, said William Zhao, the president of UCPCM. They are coming once a month instead of five times.

Zhao attributed the drop in business to the decision in July by Medi-Cal, the state health insurance program for low-income residents, to stop covering acupuncture.

A regular check-up with a Chinese medicine practitioner can cost between $40 and $60, and each packet of Chinese medicine licorice for a cough, ginseng to help boost energy and reduce stress, or wolfberry for kidney, liver, eye and skin problems is approximately $5. One cycle of treatment lasts between one and two weeks.

Zhao said he had not seen a change in the demographics of his patients. Sixty percent of his patients are Chinese, he said. The rest are Caucasian, Latino and African-American.

They are not coming for affordable treatment, but for alternative treatment that can serve their medical needs, with less or no side effects, explained Zhao.

Pain relief was the most common request from patients, but stress and depression treatments were on the rise, Zhao said.

Finding a quiet place to relax was another reason patients said they were attracted to free acupuncture clinics.

I am coming here with joy, said Smith, the former real estate agent. I need some peace and quiet time away from the stress in my life.

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