A group of strangers sits side by side amongst a fleet of La-Z-Boy recliners in a dimly lit room, in a nondescript office building. The guests hardly acknowledge each other; the only sounds in the room are the steady trickle of a miniature marble fountain and the pulsing mood music emanating from wall-mounted speakers. A man wearing cargo shorts and chain jewelry begins to snore. In a nearby chair, an elderly woman opens one eye to sneak a peek at the guilty party, smiles, and then returns to her nap.
The space could pass for a furniture showroom or the common area of a nursing home–if not for the tiny needles sticking out of the patients’ extremities. Housed in this peculiar room is Acupuncture for the People (AFTP), Eugene, Oregon’s first community acupuncture clinic. Consider it an experiment in social dynamics, or a practical business model designed to bring acupuncture to as many patients as possible.
With an ever-expanding client list, AFTP is slowly changing the way people receive health care on the community level. At the AFTP clinic, the cold formalities of institutional medicine give way to the collective spirit and group mentality of the treatment process.
“Community acupuncture seemed like a really smart way to treat people because it increases access by making it affordable for everyone,” AFTP owner and founder, Rob Singer says.
Consultations prior to treatment allow Singer to tailor a therapy plan based on patients’ individual needs. These meetings are often brief, confidential, and unobtrusive to other clients in the room. When consulting in the community room, Singer speaks in hushed tones to ensure confidentiality. As a result, he talks at a clip barely above a whisper–even when not working.
In spite of this individualistic focus, the group dynamic is an important aspect of AFTP.
“The vast majority of our clinic is people from the neighborhood, and I think that’s the strength of community acupuncture–the people that are coming to the business and getting treated together in the big room are, to some degree, members of the same community,” says Singer.
Singer has several piercings and measures his words with precision. He is always smiling and possesses an innate ability to make his clients feel at ease—a skill that undoubtedly helps when pricking patients with surgical-grade needles. He insists the process is rarely, if ever, painful.
“Every now and then we’ll get someone who totally doesn’t believe in acupuncture but is just at the end of their rope. When they start to see positive results, they are pleasantly surprised,” he adds.
The documents scattered on the clinic reception desk look more like star charts than medical sketches. To the untrained eye, they are impossible to discern. Captured in those cryptic writings are generations of knowledge, refined over the years and transported to the new millennia through formalized education. The accreditation process for acupuncture takes four years.
“In the West, our health care culture is based on what’s going on in hospitals and doctor’s offices – [acupuncture is] just a strange and foreign concept that sounds more like poetry than science,” says Singer.
While Western interpretations of the practice have attached a certain mysticism to the act of placing needles at specific points on the body, “acupuncture is, at its heart, very simple,” AFTP employee, Whitsitt Goodson, says. “Figuring out how to make it work is pretty straightforward . . . You put needles in someone and let them rest.”
Goodson and Singer work alternating shifts and treat an average of six patients an hour, six days a week. In sum, Singer estimates that he has treated ten thousand patients in his career–the majority of these patients from the comfort of a recliner in the community treatment room.
“Initially, before I started doing it, I thought it would be awkward and people would feel uncomfortable,” says Singer. “Honestly, I think it is just the opposite. If you’ve ever gone to a concert, it’s a very different energy than listening to the same music in your car.”
“Having other people around experiencing the same thing can really help raise the energy of the room. I believe it really helps to facilitate the healing process.”
The group setting of the business also serves a practical function by allowing practitioners to visit multiple patients per hour. This brings the cost of treatment down for everyone by offering prices to match any budget, while providing the resident acupuncturists with a steady clientele and living wage.
One adherent to the practice, Volunteer Secretary Gigi DeRoin, says she initially doubted the efficacy of acupuncture, but simply ran out of alternatives.
“I felt a couple hours of relief the first time; the second time I came in, it was a day and a half; and the third time I came in, the pain was gone . . . it was such marked improvement. Ever since then, I’ve been hooked,” DeRoin says with a smile, acknowledging her “needle addiction.”
After receiving treatment in the community clinic, DeRoin decided to volunteer her secretarial services for free acupuncture sessions.
From her post in the suite’s lobby, DeRoin oversees the administrative functions of the office. With a hands-free headset and knitting needles, she greets clients and answers phone inquiries with cheery enthusiasm. DeRoin works as a liaison between patients and the acupuncturists. She offers reassurances to new customers, preparing them for the treatment and answering questions related to acupuncture by drawing upon her experiences.
DeRoin knows many of the clients by name and is prone to long-winded, light-hearted conversations. Her demeanor runs counter to the form filling, curt formality expected at conventional doctor visits. She is a familiar face for returning clients, and a source of encouragement for wary first-time patients.
“Most of the time, acupuncture doesn’t hurt too badly,” she tells one patient, “but then again, I am a seamstress . . . I pinprick all the time.”
DeRoin started working at AFTP not only to cut the costs of her visits, but also to give back to the community and help others discover acupuncture.
“It kind of feels like a way of giving back, and I like that. I like to be able to give back to something that has helped me out so much,” she says.
This philanthropic spirit underlies much of the work done at AFTP. Singer says he started his business as a way to bring acupuncture to the masses–a brand of health care normally reserved for upscale spas and accommodating insurance plans. This democratic philosophy underlies the business’s unique sliding-scale payment options. Patients pay for their treatments in individual increments based on yearly income.
“The idea behind community acupuncture is that if people can’t get acupuncture, it doesn’t work,” Goodson says.
One patient that uses the sliding-scale option is Laura Stevenson, a retiree and recent acupuncture convert. She says she receives treatments to “help with her intellectual clarity and emotional and physical stability.”
“My husband and I are sending a grandson away to a private college in the spring, so if we need to, we can always pay less,” she adds.
The center’s flexible payment options allow Stevenson to receive treatment two times a week. Such frequent visits, insists Stevenson, help her handle “whatever is going on in a particular week.”
AFTP received Lane Community College’s (LCC) Micro Business of the Year award through LCC’s Business Development Center and a sizable grant to expand operations for its efforts within the community. Singer used this money to make improvements to the community room, citing the need to accommodate more patients.
Fortunately, no one seems to mind napping next to complete strangers.
Still, there is one general complaint from recent AFTP convert Chris Rompala: “It’s fine until people start snoring.”