Training New Zealand’s next generation of acupuncturists

On the 10th floor of a tower block over Unity Books on Wellington’s Willis St, a group of students work through their clinical practice at New Zealand’s first and most long-standing school of acupuncture

These third and fourth year students are part of a growing trend: The global market for the complementary medical practice is expected to grow by 14.5 percent by 2023.

However, the number of people choosing to study to become acupuncturists in New Zealand is falling.

It doesn’t help that for these students, their school - the New Zealand School of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine Wellington – is closing later this year to merge with its Auckland campus.

 acupuncture pic 2Kate Roberts (right) demonstrates the finer points of acupuncture. Photo: Mark Russell/Supplied 

A Bachelor of Health Science (Acupuncture) degree is an intensive four-year course and the students treating patients at the Wellington campus already have two years of study of both Western and traditional Chinese medicine behind them.

“I think what surprises a lot of our first-year students is the extent of the Western medicine they are required to learn,”  according to Kate Roberts, a lecturer and clinical supervisor at the school.

“They study anatomy, physiology, pathology and pharmacology. They need to know every nerve, organ and disease state. They also learn Chinese medicine and its philosophy and study ancient texts.

“They need to know diagnostic frameworks and learn to recognise the ‘red flags’ of something beyond our scope of practice - when you need to refer people to a mainstream medical practitioner.  

The students practice on each other with actual needles from their first year of study. By year three, they can start practicing clinically.  

“They need to do 500 hours of clinical practice before they graduate, and it is very closely supervised.”

acupuncture 2Students learn a range of complementary medicinal practices including cupping. Photo: Mark Russell/Supplied

Patients have to sign up for a series of six treatments at the school clinic and many of the Willis St clinic’s patients are long term.

“We’re a bit of a hidden gem of Wellington,” said Roberts. “A lot of people don’t know about us, but there is still no shortage of demand.

“We see all age ranges, from babies to retirees and treat a whole range of issues, from pain to mental health, fertility, skin conditions and women’s health.”

Third and fourth year students also rotate through the school’s acupuncture clinic in the antenatal unit at Hutt Hospital under the supervision of Dr Debra Betts, an international authority on acupuncture and acupressure in pregnancy. They offer a free service treating women for complications during pregnancy.

22-year-old Anthony Pyers from Nelson began his degree as a school leaver.

“I knew I wanted to do something health and medical related,” he said. “When I was 15, we had to do work experience and one of my teachers suggested I tried an acupuncture clinic, and I was hooked. The hardest part of it has been the biomedical learning, there such a lot to memorise.

“But clinical practice is the best. It is amazing to put a needle in someone’s ankle and it addresses the pain in their wrist. Seeing people gradually getting better and brightening up is what puts a smile on my face”.

acupuncture 4Photo: Mark Russell/Supplied

As well as acupuncture, the students learn other complementary practices including cupping, Tuina traditional therapeutic massage, and guasha, an ancient Chinese healing technique involving scraping the body with a massage tool.

The school was started 30 years ago by American acupuncturist Adeloja Olatunji – affectionately known as ‘Tunji’. He died last year shortly after selling the school and his photo still has pride of place on the main office wall.

“Tunji came to New Zealand to practice acupuncture,” Roberts said, “There was only a very small pool of acupuncturists in New Zealand back then, and people kept asking him how they could train.”

To address this, he started a small school on Wellington’s Cuba St. It grew rapidly from there, Roberts said.

“It got NZQA approval for a diploma, then was approved for the bachelor degree and now we offer a Masters degree too. It eventually grew so big that we originally took over an entire floor of our current building. We were the first in New Zealand and we expanded to Auckland.”

2020 will be the last year of operation for the Wellington school because it is merging with the Auckland school campus, once the current third year students have completed their training.

Those considering applying to study acupuncture need to have achieved university entrance, but there are no specific requirements around subjects, although Roberts said that studying sciences would be helpful.

Student Luke James, 37, is originally from the UK. He has a science degree and worked in medical laboratories before joining the school.

acupuncture 6Lecturer and clinical supervisor Kate Roberts. Photo: Mark Russell/Supplied

“I’d learned about acupuncture through my interest in martial arts and was keen to give it a go,” he said. “I love the fact that the Chinese were doing things centuries ago that we are only recognising the value of in the west today. I also like how traditional Chinese medicine focuses on the individual.

“I am a better practical learner than a visual one, so I enjoy that aspect of the degree – we are practicing on one another from year one” he said. “Acupuncture isn’t really about ‘curing’ people, it’s about making their lives more comfortable”.

The remaining 20 students at the Wellington school range from a 22-year-old who began his studies as a school leaver, to a 64-year-old former nurse.

25-year old Manson Williams was already a qualified sports and health massage therapist when he began his acupuncture degree.

“I do martial arts and I had also used acupuncture, so the interest came from both those areas,” he said. “I suffered from vertigo for eight years and acupuncture fixed that – and that encouraged me to look at complementary therapies.

“Coming from a more scientific background, I found the Chinese medical theory the hardest part. It is quite poetic. I really enjoy working with patients, and there have been some truly ‘aha’ moments when you realise you can really help people.”

- Asia Media Centre