Alameda Health System-Highland Hospital is the first hospital in the country to offer traditional Chinese medicine residency program.

Here acupuncture and clinical medical residents side-by-side learn effective pain management techniques in various areas, including the Emergency Department, Intensive Care Unit (ICU), the Birthing Center and the oncology infusion clinic.

Tom Kehl is the TCM residency program’s first chief resident. Currently a licensed and practicing acupuncturist in the South Bay, Kehl recognized the value of complementing his acupuncture skills with experience in a clinical hospital setting.

“I jumped at the chance to augment my acupuncture license with this training,” Kehl said. “I hope to continue in a hospital setting after graduation.”

Integrating acupuncture into the clinical hospital setting has engendered a mutual respect and understanding of the value of combing Eastern and Western medical treatments. While acupuncture residents are immersed in the protocols of a hospital setting, clinical medicine residents observe first-hand the relief patients feel after an acupuncture treatment.

“I was in a lot of pain when I was first diagnosed with cancer,” said oncology patient Heidi Bartlett. When diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer that had spread to her lungs, Bartlett’s oncologist suggested acupuncture to manage her pain and nausea. It wasn’t unusual to spot Bartlett, then 51, on a recliner in the hospital’s 5th-floor infusion room, receiving chemotherapy on one arm with 10 acupuncture needles protruding from her other arm, neck, hands, knees and feet.

“Acupuncture made a huge difference in my ability to eat, lack of nausea and maintain my weight during chemotherapy—I came out of treatment much healthier than I would have otherwise.”

In 2017, the Joint Commission mandated all U.S. hospitals provide non-drug alternatives to manage pain beginning in 2018.  As the need escalated for alternatives to opioids, physicians recognized the value of integrating TCM into standardized care delivery, thereby decreasing their patients’ reliance on drugs.

Highland has been providing acupuncture for pain and substance addictions for more than a decade and is at the forefront with acupuncture treatments to assist in opioid withdrawal and as pain management.  Along with this viable treatment option, came the need for licensed acupuncturists who could comfortably function in a hospital setting.

“Acupuncturists need to know Western medical terms and understand the hospital environment to be taken seriously,” said Dr. Amy Matecki, chief of the Division of Integrated Medicine at Highland Hospital. A student of Eastern and Western medicine, Matecki’s vision was to make acupuncture a mainstream, non-addictive treatment option for pain, offered by trained acupuncturists who are seamless members of the clinical team.

Matecki recruited successful licensed acupuncturists with Doctorate of Oriental Medicine degrees to serve as volunteer faculty.  Under Matecki’s leadership, the Highland Hospital Division of Integrative Medicine has provided acupuncture treatments to about 4,000 patients.

Ben Bodea, executive officer of the California Acupuncture Board, said, “the level of integration of acupuncture services in the Highland Hospital residency program, let alone the use of acupuncture in the ICU for non-opioid pain treatments, is truly novel in the United States. It is encouraging to hear of how well it is being received by patients, as well as the attention it is drawing from other programs.”

Edited June 22, 2018.