Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese therapy that involves the insertion of thin needles through the skin at strategic points, is one of the oldest, most commonly used medical procedures in the world.
Practitioners use it to treat various types of pain, such as back pain, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia and migraines. It can help prevent hot flashes and sleep disturbances, alleviate joint pain and stiffness that aromatase inhibitor therapy (to stop the production of estrogen) causes in breast-cancer patients; and manage chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (damage to or a disease affecting peripheral nerves) and nausea.
Obtaining acupuncture therapy in Mississippi is difficult due to state regulations. Patients must get a written referral or prescription; acupuncturists must practice under the supervision of the referring or prescribing physician; and a patient must live within 60 miles of the acupuncturist.
The law isn't predicated on public health or safety, and provides no justification for subjecting acupuncturists and patients to such over-reaching regulations. The Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure, which helps enforce state health laws and has taken no stance on acupuncture laws, licenses and regulates both doctors and acupuncturists. It makes no sense to keep the physician in the process to appease the Mississippi State Medical Association, a private special-interest group for physicians.
Seven bills have attempted to remove these legal hurdles; all but one has died in the public-health subcommittees. This year, SB 2214 survived the Senate. It was amended to remove the physician referral clause only for acupuncturists who have been practicing for five years or more. This means that patients will need to identify acupuncturists who do not require a referral. However, acupuncturists with less than five years may lose clients, and others are less likely to practice in Mississippi. It also means that the Board of Medical Licensure will need additional staff to police this regulation. Many legislators may believe physicians know best, even though acupuncture is outside their scope of education and training. But I suspect some are protecting MSMA interests because physicians finance political campaigns.
One of the opponents of SB 2214 is Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, whose father is a physician and campaign donor. Blount has received an estimated $14,500 from physicians. Blount's Hinds County district includes Fondren, which has Rainbow Co-op, a local retailer in alternative health care and organic food.
Another opponent is Sam Mims, R-McComb, chairman of the House Public Health and Human Services Committee, and a marketing representative with a health-care company. Campaign-finance reports or receipts and disbursements show that he has received approximately $65,000 from physicians. Given the role that physicians play in his professional life, it is fair to question the influence the MSMA has on his stance on acupuncture. An article on MSMA's website says "having Chairman Mims at the helm with an open door to his office has proven to be an asset to MSMA."
Dr. Lee Voulters, MSMA president, told Mississippi Public Broadcasting that removing a physician from the process "sets a dangerous precedent." However, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers have estimated that medical errors have caused more than 250,000 deaths per year over the last eight years in the U.S. Mississippians deserve therapeutic alternatives to recurring doctors' visits, drugs and surgeries; they should not be denied easy access because of opposed special-interest groups.
Getty Israel, who has a master's degree in public health, is a health consultant and author. This column is not meant to be medical advice.