Beginning today, patients receiving acupuncture, herbal remedies or other forms of traditional Chinese medicine in Ontario will have some reassurance that those treating them are qualified to do so.

The College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario will begin regulating traditional Chinese medicine today.

Acupuncturist Mable Cheung of Windsor, Ont., said the changes are in the best interest of the public.

"A lot of times, people are Googling acupuncture, and Chinese medical practitioners and blindly choosing someone hoping they’re licensed," she said.

One of Cheung's patients, Denise Jacobs, has been receiving acupuncture treatment for her insomnia. She thought the industry was already government regulated and welcomes the change.

"I never put any thought into it, actually," she said. "I think it’s quite a good thing. It’s very important you’re guided in the right direction."

The passing of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Act in 2006 created the self-regulatory body which will now demand that every practitioner register with the college after passing a series of tests or displaying that they have equivalent experience after having seen at least 2,000 patients in the last five years.

The college will also handle complaints from the public.

Practitioners had to have their registration forms submitted by March 19 in order to be able to practice on April 1.

Emily Cheung, the college's registrar, said the new regulations will allow the public to be assured that every practitioner treating them has met certain standards.

"Right now, there are no rules or policies and individuals can practice however they choose," said Cheung. "The public does not know whether a person is qualified or not because anyone can call themselves a traditional Chinese medicine doctor."

The new rules make Ontario one of just two provinces in Canada to regulate traditional Chinese medicine. British Columbia put its own set of rules in place in April 2003.

Traditional Chinese medicine is an ancient treatment that focuses on acupuncture, herbal remedies, proper nutrition and Chinese massage to balance the yin and yang — or contrary forces —  in one's system.

Not all practitioners study in a school setting as learning the treatments from ancestors is a frequent practice in China.

Test criticized by some

Peter Lam, spokesperson for the ad hoc Committee to Support Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario, says the new regulations may prevent those who've learned from their elders from practising, along with those who have insufficient English skills.

Lam said at a news conference two weeks ago that some 2,000 practitioners could lose their jobs due to the new regulations, a consequence he said went against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The group is seeking legal action to stop regulation of the traditional treatments.

Lam and his committee could not be reached for an interview.

wdr-220-acupuncture_1

Acupuncturist Chun Yan Li wishes all regulatory testing was administered in Chinese instead of English.

Chun yan Li has been practising acupuncture for nearly 35 years. Her first language is Chinese. Her second language is Japanese.

Only the safety portion of the registration is administered in English.

"That’s not fair. They should allow two languages. This is Chinese medicine, not Western medicine," Li said. "It's very tough for me."

English may be offered soon

Cheung, however, argued that it is possible for practitioners who learned from ancestors to get registered.

"They only need to prove that the number of patients that they've seen in the past five years was 2,000," Cheung said, adding that those who do not speak English can also become certified.

"If there is anyone lacking official language skills, they have to provide a written plan on how they plan to communicate with patients, hospitals, other health care professionals, and relay information."

Cedric Cheung is a member of the transitional council for the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturist of Ontario.

He said "an arrangement is going to be made by the council" that would "accommodate those practitioners who have difficulty in the English language."

"The ministry and the transitional council will ask practitioners to register first, regardless of whether they have written the test or failed the test. They have to go ahead and register with the college and whoever has the problem with the language will be properly arranged," Cedric Cheung said.

He said the safety test will be offered in other languages at a later point. The dates haven’t been confirmed yet.

"They’re not intending to fail everybody. They’re intending to give them the opportunity to send in their application form, to register and also give them the opportunity to practice," he said.

Thousands apply for certification

Certification — which will have to be renewed every year in June — is already underway, with 1,000 practitioners having already passed their safety tests and another 1,000 waiting to take the test. Only 30 have failed.

Adam Chen, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, is among those well on their way to acquiring certification.

He said regulation of the practice will benefit patients the most as several practitioners aren't trained to deal with specific problems.

"There's a risk of potential danger," he said. "If someone has a headache and goes to an acupuncturist who only knows a little bit but does not know how to distinguish migraines from headaches caused by a brain tumour, there could a problem."

Chen disagrees, however, with some of the new rules that will be put in place. He said practitioners will be discouraged from noting their areas of specialty and levels of expertise.

"I specialize in fertility and pain management but by regulation, I cannot advertise this," he said. "It's ridiculous." 

The new regulations will ensure practitioners are penalized for  inappropriate practice. The list of 49 offences of professional misconduct includes attempting to give treatment which requires knowledge practitioners do not have, abusing patients in a physical, ethical, or emotional manner and charging excessive fees.

Fines as high as $25,000

A violation will result in an investigation by the Canadian Institute for Conflict Resolution.

General offences such as operating without a licence fall under the Regulated Health Professions Act. A first time violation could result in a $25,000 fine and a year in prison.

Amy Nunez, who has received multiple acupuncture treatments, believes the new regulations will benefit patients the most.

Nunez received eight treatments to cure neuropathic pain in her leg that was a side effect of chemotherapy. Having been treated at a hospital, she admits she would never visit an acupuncturist that wasn't associated with one.

"I wouldn't feel safe," said Nunez. "I want to make sure the place is clean and that they know what they're doing because if they put the needles in the wrong place, I may be hurt for the rest of my life."

Nunez said she never had any doubts about the professionalism of her acupuncturist but added that regulation will further ensure the safety of patients due to the ability to report complaints to the regulating body.

Regulation will put more of an emphasis on schooling and Mary Wu, president of Toronto School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, believes that's the right approach.

Patients can trust practitioners who have a formal education more than those who learned through elders and apprenticeships, she said.

"Those with a formal education have more rounded knowledge and practice skills as well as judgment ability for the practice of traditional Chinese medicine," said Wu. "Other practitioners will have limits compared to those trained in universities."

Wu added that she would like to see more educational programs created to train practitioners.

"We need comprehensive and systematic educational programs that could provide theory, foundation, and practical skills for those interested in becoming professional traditional Chinese medicine practitioners.

"At this time, it is hard to distinguish good programs from bad. With regulation, I do hope that the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities will start to register qualified programs in schools."

With files from CBC News