May 14, 2016

Dean of Texas Acupuncturists Set to Needle Lawmakers Again

Reporting Texas

Lisa Lin and her acupuncture school, the Texas Health and Science University, have won many awards and honors in the past two decades. Qiling Wang/Reporting Texas

Lisa Lin and her acupuncture school, the Texas Health and Science University, have won many awards and honors in the past two decades. Qiling Wang/Reporting Texas


Wearing a blazer with black-and-white stripes and an indefatigable smile, Lisa Lin is ready for another battle.

A computer monitor sits on her desk amid stacks of files and folders with Post-it notes of many hues sticking out of them. Soberly framed certificates and credentials deck one wall on her office. Behind the desk hangs a 5-by-13-foot calligraphy – a poem honoring ancient Chinese heroes painted by her husband, Paul Lin. It is late afternoon, but Lin’s manner is brisk as she speaks on the phone, answering multiple calls one after another.

“Electricians also need to have a license to do their work. How could you pick up a needle without license?” she asks sardonically.

Lin is referring to “chiropractors, physical therapists, bone-setters and nurses,” whom Texas law allows to practice acupuncture in the state without what she considers to be the necessary training and license. “Three-feet cats,” Lin calls them.

If Lin has strong views on the subject, it is because she has spent years trying to professionalize and promote acupuncture in the state. Way back in 1981, the Taiwanese native and her husband set up Austin’s first independent acupuncture clinic. The effort, she said, was nothing short of “pulling a tooth out of the tiger’s mouth” as state law then made it illegal to practice acupuncture without a physician’s supervision.

“But I am never afraid of getting into trouble,” she said, speaking in Mandarin.

Acupuncture, a form of traditional Chinese therapy, involves inserting needles at certain points in the body to relieve pain and treat a variety of ailments. It is believed to have been devised before 2500 BCE and became popular in the United States after President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1971.

In Texas, licensed acupuncturists are required to complete 1,800 hours of training at an accredited school. However, its definition as a “nonsurgical, nonincisive” procedure also allows chiropractors to perform acupuncture with just 100 hours’ training and medical doctors, osteopaths and dentists to do so without any training.

Lin plans to challenge the definition when the Texas Medical Board goes up for review in the state Legislature next year to ensure that only fully trained and licensed acupuncturists are allowed to practice. The periodical review, required under the Texas Sunset Act, is carried out to determine if a state agency is still needed and if its funds are being properly spent, according to the board’s website. Lin said an evaluation report is being prepared and that she would participate in the review process beginning this month.

Tyce Hergert, vice president of the Texas Chiropractic Association, hopes the review will not change how acupuncture is defined. “If you look at the two, the doctors of chiropractic and the doctors of acupuncture and oriental medicine, as far as their credited hours, years of training [go], they are pretty comparable,” Hergert said. “It’s kind of sad to me because I know that the two professions work so well together. But now there seems to be a turf war.”

Ironically for Lin, this “turf war,” spurred by different kinds of physicians adopting acupuncture due to its efficacy, reflects her own success in popularizing the therapy since moving to Texas three-and-a-half decades ago.

Born in Taiwan as the fifth of seven children, Lin studied accounting and statistics at Ming Chuan University. But she was drawn to acupuncture, initially because of her mother’s fascination with it and later while studying under Dr. P. R. Sun, a well-known expert in traditional Chinese medicine.

“My mother always gave me Chinese medicine when I was ill as a child,” Lin said. “So I believe in Chinese medicine, and I know it works.”

During her internship with Sun, she attended an acupuncture conference in Taipei and met Paul Lin, a fellow Taiwanese acupuncturist working in East Texas. A year later, they got married, and she moved to the United States.

The Lins practiced acupuncture under the supervision of doctors, in line with Texas Medical Board rules, and received a standard hourly rate controlled by the doctors. She decided the rules were unfair. But the financial burden of filing a lawsuit against the Texas Medical Board would have been too big. Following their lawyer’s advice, the Lins moved in 1981 to Austin, where the medical board was headquartered, and opened their clinic to provoke a showdown – which would give them the opportunity to seek the state attorney general’s opinion on the law.

As expected, the medical board ordered them to comply with the rules and work under a physician’s supervision. Instead, Lin brought the issue to the attorney general’s notice. In February 1984, Attorney General Jim Mattox determined that several Texas Medical Board regulations on acupuncture violated the guarantee of equal protection under the law found in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and that there was “no rational relationship between them and the protection of the public health.”

Next, Lin and other acupuncturists lobbied the Legislature to establish an acupuncture licensing board in Texas. Every two years, they would visit the state Capitol and give treatments to state officials to show that acupuncture was an effective and reliable physical therapy. Bill W. “Billy” Clayton, the Texas house speaker from 1976 to 1983, became their paid lobbyist after Lin cured his chronic shoulder pain.

It took four attempts over 10 years, but in 1993 they succeeded in convincing the Legislature to amend the Medical Practice Act and create the Texas State Board of Acupuncture Examiners.

Lin said she was never discouraged during those years. “Sun Yat Sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, failed 10 times before successfully overthrowing the Qing dynasty,” she said.

Gov. Ann Richards appointed Lin to the new nine-member board. Recognizing her role, Richards convened the group’s first meeting on Lin’s birthday – Jan. 22, 1994.

Although Lin stayed on the board only until 1999, members still remember her role in its creation. “She is the pioneer,” said Rachelle Webb, another member.

Lin and her husband also set up Texas’s first acupuncture school in south Austin. The Texas Health and Science University was founded in 1990 with four students. It now offers bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees in acupuncture and oriental medicine along with an MBA in healthcare management and has graduated more than 600 students.

Kai-Chang Chan, one of these graduates, is now an instructor at the school. Chan’s family in Taiwan ran a business in Chinese herbs, and he developed an early interest in Chinese medicine. “We have coordination with Asia University [and] Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan, and our curriculum is actually similar to acupuncture schools in Taiwan and mainland China,” he said.

Chan, 30, said since moving to Texas, he has found Lin and her fight for the professional rights of acupuncturists to be an inspiration. “One thing she taught me is to have a broad perspective as an acupuncturist in America. We should not only practice acupuncture in the clinic but also to see the full picture.”

As Lin prepares to take on the Texas Legislature one more time, she seems excited.

“If you don’t make some noise, nobody knows,” Lin said. “But if you dare to face the challenges, then you could make a difference.”