Americans are increasingly turning to alternative medicine to treat their medical problems. Acupuncture, once considered a radical form of treatment, is becoming a mainstream medical option. It is estimated that 10 percent of Americans have tried acupuncture and that over a third of Americans would consider trying acupuncture. In addition, nearly half of the physicians in the U.S. have either referred patients to acupuncturists or would be open to making such a referral.
Most states have regulations governing the practice of acupuncture. Thirty-eight states require acupuncturists to be licensed. In some states, acupuncturists can only work under the direction of a physician. In other states, acupuncturists do not need any affiliation with a physician. Regardless of the requirements for practicing acupuncture, acupuncturists can be liable for acts or omissions that cause injury to their patients.
Some common theories of malpractice liability against acupuncturists are as follows:
- Liability for failure to refer an acupuncture patient to a specialist. For example, if the acupuncturist is treating a patient and discovers or should have discovered a medical problem that requires treatment by a medical doctor, the acupuncturist could be held liable for failure to make the referral.
- Liability for improper sterilization of acupuncture needles. The failure to sterilize acupuncture needles after each use can lead to serious infections and, subsequently, malpractice liability.
- Liability for improper technique. Improper acupuncture technique can lead to various problems including nerve damage, lung collapse due to puncture, and pain.
Other common claims against acupuncturists are based in fraud and misrepresentation. Sometimes alternative medicine patients have unreasonable expectations of the treatment and resort to lawsuits if the treatment does not succeed immediately. They claim that the acupuncturist misrepresented the effectiveness of the treatment, inducing the patient to undergo that treatment to the patient’s financial or physical detriment.
Typically, an expert opinion would be required to prove acupuncture malpractice because the practice would not generally be understood by the average juror. To prevail on a claim of acupuncture malpractice, a plaintiff would need to show that the acupuncturist breached the standard of care of a reasonably qualified acupuncturist and that the breach caused the plaintiff injuries.