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'Big slap in the face:' Acupuncture not yet allowed to reopen in Alberta

Acupuncture was grouped in with stage two, alongside unregulated personal services
20181214-Sault Mid-Week Mugging Back in Motion-DT-03
A close-up look at acupuncture treatment.

Regulated acupuncturists in Alberta say the province has overlooked their health profession in its COVID-19 reopening strategy, leaving clients who depend on treatment with few options.

While other regulated health professions, like dentists and chiropractors, could open May 4 before the province's first stage of reopening, acupuncture was grouped in with stage two, alongside unregulated health services such as massage therapists and nail technicians.

A few years ago, Brenda Giourmetakis, 60, was diagnosed with polymyalgia, an inflammatory disease causing pain and stiffness in her muscles.

Instead of dealing with the potential adverse effects of medication, she turned her attention to acupuncture.

Acupuncture has been endorsed by the World Health Organization as an effective treatment for a variety of medical conditions, including pain, fertility, stress, anxiety and insomnia, by inserting ultra-fine needles into specific points located along the 14 Meridians, or "channels," that cover the human body.

Health problems signal an imbalance or blockage in the body, and acupuncture can help remove those blockages and stimulate the body's natural ability to heal, according to the College and Association of Acupuncturists of Alberta (CAAA).  

One session made a “night and day” difference, she said. All of a sudden, she could move without feeling a constant deep ache in her muscles.

“By the next day, it was gone. I could finally sleep,” she said. “When you’re neck is so sore, you can’t get in a comfortable position, and if you can’t sleep, you can’t get well.”

Before COVID-19, Giourmetakis would get regular treatments at the Ripple Effect Wellness Centre in St. Albert to manage her pain. Now, the only way Giourmetakis can access treatment is to file an urgent care application.

“Right now, both of my shoulders are in a lot of pain, and I really need to see her again. Hopefully, I can make a case for another appointment,” she said.

Brandy Dominelli turned to tuning fork treatments, a gentle, non-invasive acoustic therapy offered by acupuncturists, for her eight-year-old daughter Ava. Ava has a gluten sensitivity, and it took two weeks for her symptoms to be completely resolved, Dominelli said. 

“She was back to herself. We hadn’t seen that happiness and joy in her for a year and a half."

Not allowing acupuncturists to reopen sooner prevents her family from having autonomy over their own healthcare, she said. 

“By removing our choice right now, they're doing a disservice to families. It's a human rights issue, and I think we should have choice,” Dominelli said. 

Eldyka Simpson, owner of Ripple Effect Wellness Centre, said it has been difficult knowing she can only offer urgent treatment on a case-by-case basis.

"Pregnancy care doesn't fall under (urgent care), and that's a huge part of our clientele. Telling someone who's 38 weeks pregnant that 'Sorry, you're not bad enough,' is really hard."

Every day, the clinic receives multiple calls from clients asking about when they will be able to reopen, Simpson said. Instead of seeing 100 people a week, the clinic is now only seeing seven patients a week. 

"We know that we could be helping these very specific, and very real, issues that people are dealing right now being in this COVID-19 situation. We're just not allowed to help," she said. 

"We have a provincial college and association, we write national exams, we write provincial exams; we do everything that every other regulated health professions do, but we still don't have a date (for reopening)."

Together with another acupuncturist in Calgary, Simpson started a petition on Change.org asking the province to allow acupuncture to reopen sooner. It has gathered more than 7,500 signatures to date.

Regulated, but not equal

Only health professions established under the Health Professions Act (HPA) were able to resume services on May 4, according to the province. This piece of legislation acts as a legal framework by which the health professions or ‘colleges’ operate and regulate its own activity.

Acupuncture is the only health profession in Alberta still regulated by the province under the Health Disciplines Act (HDA), meaning the practice operates underneath the province's purview.

"The Health Professions Act is a more modern regulatory framework that lays out consistent rules by which all professions must provide safe and competent service to the public," said Tom McMillan, Alberta Health assistant director of communications, in an email to the Gazette

"Consistent rules are important as the province relaunches health services."

The Alberta government is currently working with the CAAA to develop return to work guidelines, so the profession can get back to work immediately when the province moves to stage two, he wrote.

Other health professions, like chiropractors and physiotherapists, can offer basic acupuncture within their scope of practice.

"We appreciate Albertans’ patience during this difficult time. This staged approach is the safest way to gradually reopen the economy while mitigating the spread of the virus."

Since 2006, the CAAA has been trying to get the health profession to make the jump from the HDA to the HPA, but division within the college's membership about the transition has led to stalled negotiations with the province.

"The government is seeing the profession as not a united profession, so they are hesitant to move us into the HPA because it allows us to be more self-regulated," said Janelle Kulak, communication co-ordinator for the college. 

"It's almost like they're the boss that doesn't fully trust your work, so he always needs to double-check it before it goes out."

Despite what piece of legislation the profession falls under, acupuncture has been a regulated practice in Alberta since 1988. 

"Saying every regulated health profession except acupuncturists can move forward in stage one was like a big slap in the face," she said.

The closure has had a "devastating" effect on the province's acupuncturists, many of whom have their own clinic and struggle with ongoing expenses. 

"How can we protect the public when our acupuncturists are not able to provide the treatments that these people need to survive, or to have a healthy and happy life?" she said.

"The province is not giving us enough opportunity to prove ourselves, and that's what's sad."