How do traditional acupuncturists support patients to make lifestyle changes?

Jonquil W Pinto

Findings from our new research study suggest BAcC Members’ treatments contribute to key public health targets on healthy behaviours such as diet, physical activity, smoking, alcohol consumption and sleep habits.

How it all started
At the BAcC Conference in 2019, I spent a solid two days meeting members and asking as many as possible to take part in a research survey we were doing at Southampton University (part-funded by the BAcC). We needed over 350 people to complete the online survey and we reached this target just as the first COVID-19 lockdown started in Spring 2020. We are pleased to say the results of this study have now been published in an open access journal: BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies.

Supporting patients to make changes
In recent years, health behaviours have become the main cause of poor health outcomes in most countries. We have more long-term chronic diseases which can be improved through lifestyle factors. Acupuncturists often work from a traditional, holistic point of view, considering their patients’ symptoms in relation to lifestyle and other factors. However, this is the first time research has looked at a representative sample of traditional acupuncturists to find out how often they support patients to make changes, what kinds of changes they discuss, and what guides their decisions to offer lifestyle change support.

What the study showed
57.7% of traditional acupuncturists said they had offered support for lifestyle change in their most recent treatment. 91.7% told us that they typically offer support to patients with chronic conditions ‘always or most of the time’. 67.9% reported this for patients with acute conditions.

We found diet, physical activity and sleep habits were more frequently addressed than alcohol and smoking. It is possible this is because typical acupuncture patients are less likely to be smokers/alcohol consumers but this may also suggest an area of additional training for acupuncturists.

Acupuncturists reported that they were more likely to offer lifestyle change support if they thought their patient was receptive to change, if the patient’s condition would be likely to improve with lifestyle change, and if they had a strong therapeutic relationship.

We measured acupuncturists’ attitudes, social norms and belief in their ability to support behaviour change and found that these factors all predicted how often they typically address lifestyle change with acute patients.

Looking ahead
There is still a lot to learn about what helps people change their behaviours, both in mainstream healthcare and in complementary medicine practice. It is possible that the way behaviour change happens in acupuncture/complementary medicine is different to mainstream healthcare (e.g. because of high level of contact, longer visits, holistic approach). Our next study will look into detail at how patients experience lifestyle change support to help us understand better ways to address this in practice.

J.W.Pinto MBAcC (