Angie Ng takes out a slim tube from a white package, pressing it on the back shoulder of a middle-aged woman. At a quick pat, a thin needle drops out of the tube into the woman’s skin.
That’s what Ng does hundreds of times everyday.
“From the Chinese perspective, there is obstruction in the flow of energy in the blood,” said Ng, an American-Chinese woman who is practicing a thousands-year-old Oriental tradition in the heart of one of the world’s most modernized cities. Acupuncture helps treat pain and relieve stress. Some believe it also helps people lose weight and can even be used to promote fertility.
“We use acupuncture to open up that energy channel and help the energy flow freely so that the body can heal itself and it can restore function to that area of the body,” Ng said.
Now the owner of Acupuncture for Balanced Wellness, Ng shares a 2,400-square-foot office space with massage therapists and chiropractors. She has a separate acupuncture room and spends 35 hours a week there meeting patients. In the fifth year of her entrepreneurial endeavor, she is now expecting to earn a six-figure income.
Behind those numbers are years of schooling, practice, patience and entrepreneurial spirit. “It’s a progression,” she says. Ng was describing acupuncture, but it also applies to her business.
Ng began her journey in 2004 when she enrolled in the Midwest College of Oriental Medicine, one of three major acupuncture schools in Chicago. There she learned about everything from acupuncture to herbal medicine, and other traditional Chinese treatments. Those include gua sha, which involves repeated pressured strokes over skin to “scrape away” diseases, and cupping, which creates air vacuums under cups placed on the skin. The technique is believed to mobilize blood flow.
These ideas sound strange to some people, but they are not to Ng. The acupuncturist was raised in a traditional Chinese family in America and has been familiar with basic Chinese medicine concepts since an early age.
“Certain foods are very cooling in nature and certain foods are very warming in nature. And just based on what type of illness you are experiencing, you have to eat or you should not eat certain foods. That really introduced me to the whole concept of Chinese medicine,” Ng said.
Ng spent three years in acupuncture school before sitting for a national board exam to get her license. It must be renewed every two years. With that license and $5,000, Ng started her acupuncture career in Chicago’s West Loop in 2008.
The road of an entrepreneur
Like many acupuncturists, Ng started her business small – a 1,200-square-foot space that she shared with other practitioners. Business was slow at first – 15 hours per week treating five to 10 patients. In the first year, she made $7,000.
At that point she was only part-time – Ng also kept her corporate job as an application developer for a bank. “Just wasn’t ready to let go,” Ng said.
It was a wise choice.
William Dunbar from Midwest College of Oriental Medicine expects graduates from his school to have adequate business knowledge because they frequently are also small business owners.
“Unlike other medical professions where there are clearly defined roles and all insurance companies reimburse for, acupuncturists have to have a level of entrepreneurial skill,” Dunbar said.
That skill, Dunbar said, includes finding and retaining new patients, considering an affiliation with a doctor or a health clinic, and doing public speaking.
Ng’s corporate experiences paid off not only in terms of financial skills but also in techniques to attract customers. “I built websites professionally so that has helped me build my own website,” Ng said.
And because many patients at her Loop location are business professionals, her previous experiences also help her relate to them. “I came from that world,” the acupuncturist said.
“I understand the pressure that’s put on people and what kind of challenges that can bring from a health perspective. I’ve been seeing a lot more anxiety-type issues, people dealing with stresses of work and home life and trying to get back and forth.”
A milestone came in mid 2011 when Ng moved to the current office a few blocks south of the old one.
“We outgrew the space, which is why we are now in this location, twice as big as the old location. The acupuncture rooms are exclusively acupuncture. I don’t have to share with massage therapists as I did in the old space,” Ng said.
Ng is expecting a profit of $90,000 to $100,000 this year, double last year’s. She quit her corporate job a year ago.
“I do foresee things getting busy enough to necessitate an associate within the next year,” Ng said.
Compared with acupuncturists who have been in the industry for decades, Ng has faced fewer challenges—at least in the early stage. Thirty years ago acupuncturists needed to spend lots of time explaining to patients why putting needles in their bodies was good for them. Today most patients walk into a treatment room familiar with acupuncture.
“Usually they already know a little bit of something, either they had it before or they heard about it through someone who has had acupuncture,” Ng said.
Elizabeth Matos is one of Ng’s patients. She suffered from migraines and has received acupuncture for years.
“A co-worker of mine suggested it. He was getting acupuncture,” said Matos, who still remembered her first treatment. “I thought it was going to hurt but it was pretty easy. There was just like a slight, little prink when you first get the needle inserted, but it’s very mild.”
Matos had to stop receiving acupuncture treatment for a while due to her work schedule but picked it up again later. “It helps with the intensity of the migraines and for a while I actually stopped getting migraines for quite a few months,” Matos said.
The increased awareness of this old treatment in America has boosted the number of people who want to learn about it. At the school where Ng received training, executives have increased the number of catalogs they print from 1,000 to more than 2,500 on average per year.
However the school intentionally keeps its enrollment stable.
“If we accepted every student that applied and we didn’t keep our graduation numbers down, the market will be flooded by graduates, and if the market is flooded by graduates, it doesn’t serve the profession well,” Dunbar said.
In Chicago more than 100 licensed acupuncturists are registered on Acufinder.com, a private website collecting all kinds of information related to acupuncture. To Ng, something needs to change before the industry can grow larger.
Challenges from doctors and insurers
“We continue to face challenges trying to make ourselves more established and respected in the medical community. I mean we are still somewhat on the fringe,” said Ng.
She adds that some doctors are still suspicious about acupuncture and thus don’t recommend it to their patients. Many insurance plans don’t cover acupuncture treatments.
Matos is one of the non-insured patients. She is currently enrolled in a preferred provider organization, or PPO.
For insurance plans that do cover acupuncture, there can be many conditions attached.
“They will only cover it if it’s done by a medical doctor,” Ng said, adding that generally, physicians received much less training in Chinese medicine than acupuncturists.
And some plans may cover only one kind of treatment. Gua sha and cupping, for example, are often not on insurers’ radars.
That may change in the near future.
Obamacare specifically mentions complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, in several different sections of the health-care law. Advocates expect alternative treatments to be as accessible as conventional care in the future.
Ng believes this will help bring acupuncture into mainstream health care. She is especially excited about the “non-discrimination in health care” section of the law, which prohibits insurers from discriminating against health-care providers.
“I believe this is a crucial part of the plan,” Ng said. “This drives some patients to seek acupuncture from health-care professionals who are far less qualified to practice acupuncture than fully trained licensed acupuncturists.”
A Chinese philosopher wrote in the early 9th century that experts in divergent fields can still learn something from each other. It’s widely used to express the idea that people with different knowledge and skills should be equally respected regardless of their educational backgrounds and professions.
Ng hopes her business will be better accepted by the Western medical mindset, just as she tries to add modern words, such as nervous system, to old acupuncture languages such as channels.
“Two different perspectives, but to me they both make a lot of sense,” Ng said.