Chinese Medicine Practitioner vs. Acupuncturist - what's the difference?

For the sake of accuracy, this post is only going to cover this topic as it stands in the state of California. The United States has several states which have different regulations for Chinese Medicine Practitioners. In California, if a person wants to study and then practice Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), that person enrolls at a 4-year university that specifically teaches TCM. Potential students need to have met a standard of pre-requisites before being accepted to the University.

During the continuous 4 years of education the student studies TCM theory, anatomy, physiology, physics, Qi cultivation, TCM diagnosis, Western Medical diagnosis, pharmacology, herbology…the list goes on and on. After completing all of the training and 1 year of clinical rounds and passing the universities exit exam and being awarded a Masters Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the student then sits for their state board licensing exam.

This exam covers not only acupuncture, but also herbal medicine, TCM and Western diagnosis, anatomy and physiology, and pharmacology. After passing the state board exam, we are then awarded a state of California Acupuncture license. But, we are much more than just “Acupuncturists”. 

Those of us who have completed all of these steps are Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which incorporates acupuncture as one modality of patient treatment. In spite of the fact that we are trained in many other methods, many TCM practitioners call themselves “Acupuncturists”. The reason I am writing about this is when I tell someone I am a Practitioner of Chinese Medicine, I get a blank stare. When I say I do acupuncture, they then understand. But, the challenge is, I do much more than just acupuncture. Being a TCM Practitioner, I diagnose within the scope of my medicine. I give dietary and lifestyle advise. I treat my patient with any combination of acupuncture, cupping, gua sha, moxabustion, and/or tui-na. I prescribe herbal medicine. I consult with their Western doctor. I order and interpret blood work.

I am much more than just an acupuncturist. Sometimes, I don’t even do acupuncture if that particular modality is not in my patients best interest.

To say to someone “I am an acupuncturist” is easy. It’s shorter than “I am a Practitioner of Chinese Medicine. I am a licensed acupuncturist and an herbalist. I also do cupping and give nutritional, fitness, and lifestyle advise to treat my patients.” Although my way of telling someone what I do is longer, it is truly accurate. I feel it also sets me off on the right foot with a potential client or referral source by elaborating and educating them right from the start that Chinese Medicine is much more than just acupuncture.

Although I am not a doctor, I still appreciate and value the root of the word, “docere”, which means “to teach”. I aim from the outset to begin educating others as to what it is I do. The expression “teach a man to fish” is very applicable to how I treat my patients, as I am not here to heal you but rather am here to guide you and teach you how to heal yourself.