Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

Nearly ten years ago, Stephanie Holmquist wrote a thought-provoking article about acupuncture’s place in Western medicine and bioethics. She discussed the evolution of acupuncture from a practice almost exclusive to China to being incorporated into modern-day Western medicine. Holmquist used Tang Muli’s 1972 painting Acupuncture Anaesthesia as one of the origin points for the West’s increased exposure to acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. Since this article was written, more research has been published that supports further implementation of acupuncture into Western medicine to improve outcomes of numerous disorders. 

In a study conducted by Birch et al., the number of publications published between 1991 and 2017 that recommended the use of acupuncture was analyzed. The study found an increase in the number of articles that made positive recommendations through the years. In 2005 there were just 50 articles that recommended acupuncture, but by 2017 that number jumped to 1311. The status of acupuncture as an evidence-based practice has been further solidified in the United States through its addition to pain management guidelines by numerous respected organizations. Since 2015, acupuncture has been endorsed as a nonpharmacological strategy for pain management by the Joint Commission, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the American College of Physicians. In addition, acupuncture was approved for coverage when used for chronic low back pain by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid in 2020.

Through a bioethical lens, the acceptance of acupuncture as an evidence-based medicine has increased patient autonomy. Adding acupuncture to a recommended list of choices for pain management has given patients a nonpharmacological option that may align better with their ideals and lifestyle. Some patients are not interested in pharmacological interventions for pain for a variety of reasons. In healthcare, it is important that a patient’s preferences are respected if possible. Patients should be able to make fully informed decisions with information that is transparent about both the pros and cons of a treatment. Patients who felt as if their preferences were acknowledged and incorporated by their provider reported higher rates of patient satisfaction. With the increase in the amount of high-quality studies supporting acupuncture’s clinical use as well as backing from respected agencies, physicians can recommend acupuncture with a higher degree of confidence. 

With a trend towards incorporating more complementary and alternative therapies into medicine as treatment options, ten years from now, it is likely that there will be an even higher volume of investigations into acupuncture’s clinical use. Fifty years from Tang Muli’s Acupuncture Anaesthesia, acupuncture has gained popularity in American healthcare and has no signs of losing favor in the West in future.