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Acupuncture touted for low-cost care

Acupuncture

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KAI RYSSDAL: Whoever wins in November's going to have to do some pretty serious thinking about health care. Surveys consistently show it right near the top of the list of things voters say they're worried about -- the availability of care, as well as the cost. On that latter point, one possible solution might be coming from an unlikely source. An alternative form of treatment that involves lying completely still while they stick needles in you.

Joel Rose reports from Philadelphia.


JOEL ROSE: Philadelphia Community Acupuncture occupies a big, open room on the top floor of a former firehouse. About half a dozen patients doze in reclining chairs with little needles sticking out of their arms and legs.

KORBEN PERRY: Can I see your tongue? And you're sleeping better?

ILIANA PAGAN: I'm going to bed early for me. . . .

Iliana Pagan whispers with acupuncturist Korben Perry. He takes her pulse, inspects her tongue, and then slides tiny needles a few millimeters into her skin, where they'll stay for most of the next hour.

Rose: How does this work again?

Ellen Vincent: Acupuncture? No one really knows. The most important thing is that we see results.

Ellen Vincent started the clinic with Korben Perry just over a year ago. Now it's treating 150 patients a week for a variety of conditions.

Vincent: A lot of back pain. A lot of anxiety, especially panic attacks. I have many people walking in the door in a state of panic and we give them needles, and they walk out the door, saying "Thank you, so much. I feel so much better.

At a typical acupuncture clinic, Vincent and Perry would see one or two patients an hour and charge $80 or more a visit. But Philadelphia Community Acupuncture is organized around the so-called group visit model where up to a dozen patients are seen at the same time. Because of the volume, they're able to keep their fees low. Their sliding scale starts at just $15 dollars a treatment, which means more patients can afford to get treated more often.

Lisa Rohleder: When we say our goal is to take back acupuncture for the working class, we are not kidding.

Lisa Rohleder pioneered the community acupuncture business model at her clinic Working Class Acupuncture in Portland, Oregon.

Rohleder: A large number of our patients have no health insurance at all. And no access to health care. We think that's wrong.

She says this model is closer to the way acupuncture is practiced in China, where it was first developed thousands of years ago. And she thinks group visits for routine health care like this could be applied to more conventional medicine. Kjersten Gmeiner thinks so, too. She's a family doctor in Seattle who's been offering group visits for years for patients with diabetes and hypertension.

Kjersten Gmeiner: It's something that decreases cost -- that's the grail in current medical care -- with increased patient and provider satisfaction.

So far, there isn't a whole lot of research backing up Gmeiner's claims, though one promising study in Denver did show that group visits for seniors lowered their overall health care costs by more than $40 per month. But not everyone is convinced that group visits are the Holy Grail. Deborah Peel heads the organization Patient Privacy Rights.

Deborah Peel: A significant number of people are not comfortable telling anyone but their doctor some of the things that are the most disturbing or troubling or frightening about their symptoms or their bodies. For actually getting the best treatment, one-on-one is far more effective than group treatment.

Even group visit advocates admit they won't work for everyone or every situation. But the idea does seem to be catching on with patients like Jessica Winegar at Philadelphia Community Acupuncture.

Jessica Winegar: You feel like you're all sort of in this together. And, I don't know, I mean, it sounds flaky to say but there is some sort of, like, collective energy that's produced that I think is actually . . . outweighs any of the negative aspects of not having a one-on-one -- an extended one-on-one -- with a provider.

For Winegar, the most important thing is that her back finally stopped hurting.

In Philadelphia, I'm Joel Rose for Marketplace.

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