Traditional Chinese medicine in Flushing: right place, right time

Thirty-five-year-old Richard Ro, a Korean American living in Queens, has been suffering from shoulder and neck issues for many years. He just had surgery to take care of some muscle compression and decided to seek acupuncture to keep his pain off.

“I found the clinic on Yelp,” said Ro. “It’s got good reviews and that’s how I found it.”

Ro was one of three patients getting treatment early afternoon on a recent Saturday at Regen Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) clinic in downtown Flushing, a neighborhood home to many Chinese and Koreans.

“There are cases where western medicine is more effective, there are cases where acupuncture is more effective,” said Dr. Taehoon Kim, a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbal medicine practitioner. He opened the clinic in 2012 and typically sees about 150 to 200 patients a month.

The effectiveness of TCM, which includes acupuncture, cupping and the use of herbal medicine, is still under discussion in traditional western medical circles. The United National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), a U.S. government agency, has called for more rigorous scientific evidence to support this therapeutic approach. However, that has not stopped TCM clinics in neighborhoods like Flushing to flourish.

On 41st Road, Tong Ren Acupuncture has witnessed the vicissitudes of TCM clinics in this neighborhood since it opened 18 years ago. “There were only five or six TCM clinics when I first came,” said Dr. Tak Chio Cheong, the specialist there. He came to the United States with a TCM master’s degree from China. “Now the number has grown almost ten times.”

A walk around downtown Flushing today can expose visitors to a diversity of Chinese-language shop signs, a large number of them are clinics or pharmacies. Statistics provided by the NYC Departments of Small Business Services show pharmacies and health cares, as one major employer in downtown Flushing, accounting for more than 20% of the storefronts there in 2016. Economic files released by the city comptroller in 2017 also show health care among the best-developing businesses in Flushing between 2000 and 2015.

TCM clinics are taking the ride. As one of the busiest intersections across New York City, Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue is made accessible by various transportation, including subway, selected buses, railroad, and expressways.

The patients are not only Asians. “Actually there are more non-Asians than Asians in my clinic,” Kim said. Dr. Cheong, too, has visitors from all across New York, his day at the clinic is spent walking between the consulting table and different wards. “There are Chinese, Russians, Koreans, Hispanics,” he said. “I also have to mail herbal medicine to my patients in other parts of the States.”

Since 1976, when California became the first state licensing professional acupuncturists, traditional Chinese medicine has come a long way in the U.S. In 1997, the NCCIH estimated there were around 10,000 practitioners in the US. “Now in New York State alone, there are about 5,000 of them,” says Dr. Cheong, who also serves as a board member of United Alliance of New York State Licensed Acupuncturists. In some cases, acupuncture is also covered by insurance as complementary/alternative therapies.

Because of the recent opioid overdose crisis in the United States, where many people have gotten addicted to painkillers, there has been a rise in Americans considering acupuncture instead to treat their pain, said several Acupuncturists. “It’s a cost-effective solution to a lot of people’s medical problems,” added Dr. Kim, explaining that Acupuncture has the advantage to provide pain relief immediately rather than needing a prescription.

“Illnesses are only natural, and cultural integration has brought more people to TCM,” said Cheong. “I am pretty optimistic about the future of traditional Chinese medicine in the U.S..”