Friday, April 2, 2010

Professional Diversity in the TCM Field

Pharmacy counter at the Beijing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Eric Brand makes a very important point in a recent blog about professional diversity in the U.S. TCM field. The recently-released NCCAOM survey says that over 93% of people in the field describe themselves as "practitioner" rather than educator, administrator, or funded researcher - "pharmacist" wasn't even an option, that's how few of us there are! Eric comments:

This stat is also very interesting because it appears that nearly 94% of the people in our profession essentially have the same job. In the Asian world, the profession is much more diverse. Many professionals in Asia are funded researchers, pharmacists, merchants, scholars, advisors, etc. In the NCAAOM survey, 91% of respondents said that they were self-employed, while 30% were both self-employed and employed by others.

Overall, these numbers suggest to me that we tend to focus too much on a single model of a professional identity and lifestyle. Over 35% of respondents said that they felt “poorly prepared” in terms of marketing and PR, and we constantly hear complaints that students find difficulty finding work after graduation. Perhaps we are too focused on the idea that private practice is the ultimate goal of all graduates. Many graduates like to work for other companies rather than fending for themselves, and there are many potential industry jobs available in areas such as herbal quality control. Unfortunately, our teaching programs rarely introduce students to career tracks and lifestyle models beyond private practice. We often have little training in areas such as research or advanced herbal pharmacy, and there is hardly any competition for the jobs in these sectors. Unfortunately for the academic community and industry, there are relatively few graduates that have the skills to fill these jobs.

Hear hear! This is exactly why Nini and I started Fat Turtle Herbs. As the TCM field grows in America, there will be a corresponding need for the specialized field of TCM pharmacy to grow as well. Successful Chinese medicine practitioners simply don't have the time to be their own pharmacist - on top of being your own secretary, business manager, insurance biller, janitor, and assistant, imagine assembling raw herbal formulas or granule formulas for every single patient. It's just not do-able. This time crunch leads many people to rely on pills or simply give up on herbs altogether, which besides being very sad is doing your patients a disservice.

That's where we come in. You might not have the capital or the space for a front office person or insurance biller, but you can always send your herbal formulas to us. In the L.A. area we have a convenient pickup location close to the 405 freeway, and we ship all over the United States (regular shipping arrives the next day in Southern California, two days to the Bay Area).

I was fortunate to have Tom Leung as my Herbs 3 teacher at my TCM school in New York - later I was able to work at his herbal pharmacy Kamwo, which is a traditional Chinatown herb store that's been modernized, upgraded and made friendly to non-Chinese speaking practitioners. That's when I looked around and realized I was surrounded by people who had deep knowledge of herbs, herbal formulas, over-the-counter herbal remedies, herbal preparation and TCM theory. They knew much much more than a new graduate of a typical acupuncture college, were involved in Chinese medicine every day of their working lives, and yet none of them ever touched a needle or treated a patient.

When I moved to Los Angeles to finish my TCM schooling, I looked around for a Kamwo equivalent. Surely there must be one, I thought, this kind of herbal pharmacy is so vital to the TCM community. Herb King in Santa Monica used to perform that role, but the owner unexpectedly died in a car crash and it was bought by the owners of a medical marijuana dispensary, who quickly started selling pot there. The owner of the building then booted them rather than risk having his property seized by the DEA, and that was the end of Herb King. Although they still sell Chinese herbs, it's truly a side line - the vast majority of their business comes from marijuana.

(I worked for a little more than a year at the successor to the Herb King, and I can tell you from personal experience that Chinese pharmacy service is little more than window dressing for them. There are certainly good, earnest L.Acs working there who will assemble an herbal formula for you, but without the support of upper management the Chinese herbs displayed are, as I say, window dressing. Fat Turtle is truly focused on professional Chinese herbal pharmacy services - we don't sell pot. I support medical marijuana and I'm glad it's available to those that need it, but it falls into a special category that L.Acs legally have absolutely no jurisdiction over, and associating ourselves with medical marijuana does nothing to advance the profession or help our patients.)

Whenever I tell L.Acs and TCM students what I do, and that I don't treat patients, I get one of two reactions. 1) The students and newer practitioners get a look on their face like they heard someone died, and say "Oh, wow. That's... I mean..." 2) The more experienced practitioners say "Wow, that's great! How do I order?"

The students and new practitioners are thinking of themselves - everyone is afraid of being "one of those" who doesn't end up practicing, who puts in four years of study and borrowed money and "doesn't use it." I'm here to tell you, don't worry about it! Yes, we need lots of wonderful doctors. But we also need teachers, administrators, researchers, and yes, pharmacists, all working in the TCM field. So if you're halfway through TCM school and are realizing that you don't want to be a doctor, come talk to me. I may have a job for you.

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