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Can You Sue an Acupuncturist for Medical Malpractice?

Acupuncture is an alternative to more traditional Western medicine that is becoming more popular across the country. Some acupuncture practitioners are also medical doctors, who can provide a broader range of treatment options. Many people think of acupuncture as a safe alternative treatment with many benefits and few side effects. Unfortunately, when acupuncture is not done according to professional standards, it can cause injuries to the patient. 

Some of the most serious injuries involving acupuncture is by relying solely on acupuncture treatment when there may be more severe medical conditions that need professional treatment. For example, if a doctor-acupuncturist was treating a patient for conditions that should alert them to emergency health conditions, those should be reported to the patient for immediate care. Failure to timely diagnose or treat a  patient could risk serious injury. 

If you believe you were injured because of malpractice by an alternative medicine professional, find out about your medical options. For questions about medical malpractice claims to recover financial compensation, contact our office today online or by phone at 800-529-6162.  

What Is an Acupuncturist?

An acupuncturist is a provider who practices acupuncture. Acupuncture is an ancient technique that uses fine needles to picture the skin at specific points in the body to relieve certain symptoms. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, acupuncture originated as a traditional Chinese medicine and has been in existence for at least 2,500 years. However, the practice has gained in popularity since the 1970s. 

Between 2002 and 2012, acupuncture users in the U.S. increased by 50%. Most patients use acupuncture to address back pain, neck pain, knee pain, joint pain, osteoarthritis, headaches, and post-operative pain. There is evidence that it has some effects on the nervous system and some body tissues. It is often used as a complementary treatment for other medical treatments that can involve pain, nausea, and anxiety.

There may also be nonspecific (placebo) benefits. Imaging studies show acupuncture has effects on the nervous system function. There is also evidence it can help breast cancer patients with joint pain associated with the use of aromatase inhibitors. However, there are also contraindications for acupuncture, which may include anticoagulant therapy or pregnancy. 

The acupuncture needle is thin, from 0.5 inches to 5 inches in length, and is usually made of stainless steel, silver, or gold. Needles can be inserted freehand or with the use of a tube. 

Pain Treatment Clinical Guidelines and Acupuncture

According to clinical guidelines from the American College of Physicians, acupuncture is a nondrug option recommended as a first-line treatment for chronic low-back pain. The guidelines show evidence favoring acupuncture for chronic low-back pain as of moderate quality. 

Guidelines under the American College of Rheumatology and the Arthritis Foundation conditionally recommend acupuncture for osteoarthritis of the knee, hip, or hand, with the greatest number of studies showing acupuncture benefits for knee osteoarthritis.

For non-pain-related recommendations, clinical practice guidelines from the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery include acupuncture as an option for patients with allergic rhinitis. 

Another benefit of treating conditions like headaches and migraines is the relatively low rates of side effects in clinical studies compared to drugs. There are other studies showing benefits for myofascial pain syndrome, sciatica, postoperative pain, cancer pain, chronic prostatitis or pelvic pain syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and fibromyalgia. 

Is an Acupuncturist a Doctor?

It depends. Some acupuncturists are medical doctors. However, most acupuncturists are nonphysician licensed providers. According to a study in the Clinical Journal of Pain, up to 1/3rd of acupuncturists in the United States are licensed medical doctors (with an M.D. or D.O.). This is an important distinction because the standards of care are different for doctors and non-physicians. 

Physicians who utilize acupuncture often use a mixture of styles and take a neuroanatomic approach to needle placement, based on their education and training of the nervous system. Physician acupuncturists may combine acupuncture with drugs and other medical treatment options for pain relief. 

One of the common training methods for doctors is known as French Energetic acupuncture, with other techniques including elemental, myofascial, and somatotopic. The French energetic technique emphasizes meridian patterns, with yin and yang pairs of the prime meridian. 

Non-physicians are often trained in a more traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) approach. This focuses on eight principles of complementary opposites: yin/yang, internal/external, excess/deficiency, and hot/cold. In practice, the acupoint selection to treat low back pain is very similar between TCM and medical acupuncture. 

How Can Acupuncturists Commit Medical Malpractice?

Many people think acupuncture is totally safe. However, there are always risks of any medical treatment. If the acupuncturist is also a physician, they still have the responsibilities in a doctor-patient relationship. Some possible types of medical malpractice errors involving acupuncture include:

Physician acupuncturists may also commit medical malpractice unrelated to the actual acupuncture, including using their complementary treatments for pain management. These medical errors could include medication injuries, lack of informed consent, diagnostic errors, surgical errors, and failure to diagnose. 

Delayed Diagnosis Injuries

Delayed diagnosis is one of the most dangerous problems associated with any treatment. Acupuncture may not be to blame for the delayed diagnosis but if a doctor overlooks a serious medical condition because they are too focused on acupuncture treatment, the doctor could be medically negligent. 

Delayed diagnosis of serious conditions can allow the medical condition to get worse. For example, a delayed cancer diagnosis could allow the cancer to grow and metastasize, spreading to other areas of the body. When cancer spreads, it can be more difficult to treat, reduce treatment options, and represent a worse outcome for the patient. 

Delayed diagnosis malpractice means that the doctor deviated from standard practices by failing to diagnose a condition that they reasonably should have been able to identify as an area of concern. 

For example, if a patient complained of a lump in their neck which other doctors would investigate for possible cancer (or to rule out cancer) but the doctor ignored the complaint, the patient may not get treated. It may take months before the patient gets a second opinion from another doctor who identifies cancer. The first doctor may have negligently been responsible for the delayed cancer diagnosis. 

Misdiagnosis by an Acupuncturist

Misdiagnosis can be as bad as a delayed diagnosis. If a doctor diagnoses a patient for one condition, it may leave the underlying condition untreated. It can cause delays in identifying the actual medical issue and delayed treatment. However, with a misdiagnosis, the patient may undergo unnecessary treatment that is ineffective against their actual conditions. 

Puncture Injuries

Puncture injuries are rare but they do exist. In a review of serious adverse events involving acupuncture, a research study identified a number of puncture injuries, including pneumothorax and heart organ injuries. Other tissue injuries included central nerve system injuries and peripheral nerve injuries. Pneumothorax is a collapsed lung and can be caused by chest trauma, lung disease, or puncturing the lung. 

A collapsed lung can cause sharp chest pain, shortness of breath, chest tightness, fatigue, and hypoxia. For large pneumothorax events, the air must be removed from around the lung and the puncture needs to be repaired. Patients may need oxygen treatment until the lung can be re-inflated. 

Acupuncture Needle Infections

Anytime outside microorganisms are introduced into the tissue, they can cause an infection. Acupuncturists should carefully follow sterilization and sanitation procedures, including sterilizing the acupuncture needles and other tools used in the procedure. 

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, “some patients have developed endocarditis, meningitis, osteomyelitis, endophthalmitis, and thoracic empyema, most infections are cutaneous or musculoskeletal infections, including abscesses or septic arthritis at the site of the needle insertion.”

Infections are one of the most common adverse events associated with acupuncture. In some cases, they involve isolated incidents but they can involve infection outbreaks. In one case, a patient with a knee infection caused by acupuncture treatment died from renal failure. Other types of infections associated with acupuncture cases included:

  • Endocarditis
  • Septic arthritis
  • Streptococcus
  • Staphylococcus aureus 
  • MRSA
  • Gram-positive atrial myxoma
  • Klebsiella pneumoniae 
  • Tissue abscess and osteomyelitis
  • Mycobacterium  chelonae
  • Necrotizing fasciitis
  • Escherichia coli
  • Cellulitis, septicemia, and pneumonia

Acupuncturist Education, Training, and Licensing

To be eligible for acupuncture certification under the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM), there are basic requirements, including a 3-year Master’s program in Acupuncture (1905 hours)j, consisting of:

  • Oriental Medicine/Acupuncture Theory
  • Acupuncture Clinic
  • Biomedicine
  • Counseling, Communication, Ethics, Practice Management

A combination of formal education and apprenticeship is another approach, a combined 3 years of apprenticeship training and formal education. 

A Clean Needle Technique (CNT) practical education certificate is also required. 

The applicants then need to sit for the NCCAOM examinations with a minimum scaled score of 70. 

For practicing acupuncture, most states require licensing by the state professional licensing board. For example, in Pennsylvania, licensure requirements include:

  • Completion of an approved acupuncture program
  • Continuing education 
  • Examination
  • Licensing fees and renewal fees

Expert Witnesses in an Acupuncturist Malpractice Claim 

Under the rules of evidence, an expert may testify if:

  • The expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge is beyond that possessed by the average layperson;
  • The expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; and
  • The expert’s methodology is generally accepted in the relevant field.

The average person may have an idea what an acupuncturist does but most people don’t know the specifics, have the training, or understand the accepted standards of acupuncture. Using an expert witness in an acupuncture malpractice claim may even be required by state law. 

An expert witness in a medical malpractice lawsuit is generally someone with similar qualifications. If the case involves a claim against a non-physician acupuncturist, a licensed acupuncturist may be used as an expert witness. For medical malpractice claims involving a doctor-acupuncturist, another physician-acupuncturist may be the expert witness. 

An expert witness can review the case, including medical records, testimony, and other evidence. The expert can testify if they believe the doctor in the case committed professional negligence and how they deviated from standard acupuncture practice in causing the patient’s injuries. The expert can also prepare a report detailing their experience, their training, and their findings. 

It is ultimately up to the jury to decide the case. Based on testimony from the experts, the jury will evaluate the case to determine if they believe the victim’s injuries were caused by the acupuncturist’s negligence. 

Should I File a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit?

If you suffered injuries caused by acupuncture treatment, including delayed diagnosis, delayed treatment, or misdiagnosis of a more serious condition, you may have a claim for medical malpractice compensation. There may be many benefits to filing a malpractice claim. You can get damages for your injuries. Depending on the extent of the harm, you may be able to recover:

  • Medical expenses
  • Future medical care
  • Loss of income
  • Pain and suffering
  • Mental distress

A malpractice claim can also help others avoid a similar catastrophe. A successful claim may even make the medical industry reconsider how they care for patients, to improve overall quality of care. It is also a way to hold the negligent doctor accountable for their actions. 

Unfortunately, there is a limited amount of time to file a medical malpractice lawsuit. The statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims puts a time limit on when the injury victim can file a lawsuit. In many states, including Pennsylvania and Illinois, the time limit is generally 2 years for medical malpractice claims. However, there could be exceptions that shorten or extend the time limit, so contact an experienced malpractice attorney as soon as possible. 

If you’re not sure if your injuries were caused by malpractice, talk to an experienced medical malpractice lawyer who can identify if you have a case, who may be responsible, and how much you may be able to get in damages. If you have questions about your legal rights after a medical injury, contact a law firm that handles medical malpractice cases just like yours. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.

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