A Brief History of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Doctoral Programs

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A Brief History of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Doctoral Programs

This article is now live at AcuToday as well.

A doctorate in acupuncture and Oriental medicine has been a goal of the profession since its beginnings in the late 1970s. At that time, however, the maturity of the educational institutions and the regulatory environment made it a goal with only a distant completion date. Throughout the 1990s, the colleges continually increased their expertise and resources and the doctoral project gathered momentum. Finally, by May 2000, standards for the post-graduate doctorate, the Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (DAOM), were approved by the Accreditation Commission of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM). Entrance to the DAOM required a master’s degree in acupuncture and Oriental medicine.

It was not long after that leaders in the field began conceptualizing an entry-level doctorate, also called a first professional doctorate: a degree that students would enter after completing undergraduate prerequisite courses. Beginning late in 2002, the Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (CCAOM), along with ACAOM and our other associations, considered the feasibility of and standards for the entry-level doctorate. The degree standards were eventually established a decade later, in February 2013.

The standards for the entry-level doctorate recognize that acupuncturists often need more than just great private practice skills. The 28 doctoral competencies added to the master’s level competencies focus on evidence-informed practice, advanced integrative diagnosis, integrative case management, current healthcare systems, inter-professional communication, and practice-based learning. Today, at some acupuncture colleges, students are now beginning their education in entry-level doctoral programs in much the same way that the earliest acupuncturists entered certificate programs and the next generation of acupuncturists entered master’s degree programs. But where does this new doctoral degree leave those previous generations of acupuncturists?

Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (PCOM) is the first college to offer a transitional doctorate to these acupuncturists. From the earliest discussions of the entry-level doctorate, PCOM maintained that no master's level graduate should be left behind. All acupuncturists deserve an opportunity to acquire the entry-level doctoral competencies and, upon completion, achieve degree parity. Just like their colleagues in physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other professions that have created an entry-level doctorate, acupuncturists should have an upgrade pathway, i.e., a transitional doctorate.

Pacific’s curriculum was developed by doctoral educators, subject matter experts, and experienced distance education designers. The above 28 doctoral competencies along with the unique aspects of PCOM’s master’s degrees formed the basis of the transitional doctorate. Each aspect of the program was scrutinized and approved by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC). From fall 2015 to fall 2016, PCOM offered this program to its own alumni, studying its results and refining the curriculum. The online delivery method was used and tested in its post-graduate DAOM for the last three years and its undergraduate programs for six years.

Pacific began offering the transitional program to qualified acupuncturists from other schools in January 2017. The program focuses on the skills needed to practice in the emerging multi-disciplinary clinics and hospital-based practices, and as a member of a referral network. Each subject is approached in a way that enriches the acupuncturist's understanding of Chinese medicine, biomedicine, and their cross-pollination. Graduates become confident advocates for patients and for Chinese medicine.

The transitional doctorate consists of 22 units, taken online, typically over 2-4 semesters (up to 5 units of transfer eligible; most PCOM grads earn 5 units). Because the 28 doctoral competencies are the same for all students, candidates who enter with a master's in Oriental/Chinese medicine or the equivalent will earn the Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine (DACM), while those entering with a master's in acupuncture or the equivalent will earn the Doctor of Acupuncture (DAc). There are no ACAOM standards for these transitional degrees.

Some acupuncturists have said, how can you earn a doctorate in 22 units? That question expresses a fundamental misconception. Acupuncturists have earned a lot more than 22 units on their way to a doctorate. Consider the credits required to earn the transitional DACM: 1) a minimum of 90 units of undergraduate credits; 2) 180-192 credits in the case of a PCOM master’s; plus 3) 22 transitional credits. That is a total of 292 to 304 credits. Compare that to the typical pathway to a doctor of physical therapy (DPT), which requires 120 undergraduate credits and 120 graduate credits for a total of 240. The length of the transitional program itself is also comparable to those in physical therapy. A comprehensive survey found that transitional doctor of physical therapy programs vary in length from 12 to 35 units. Acupuncturists earning the transitional doctorate have every reason to be proud of their achievement.

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