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My acupuncturist re-used a needle. Should I be concerned?

Q:Because I cannot lie for any length of time I was treated first on one side then the other. I noticed that the she re used the same needles having placed them on the cupboard whilst I had cupping in between Also I got home to find a needle still in my head. Should I be concerned?

A: We don't think you have any reason to be concerned for your safety; even in the hands of the untrained and incompetent the incidence of serious adverse effects is very very low in comparison to the number of treatments performed, and in the UK, where it is rare to find untrained practitioners, the rate of serious adverse events in the 4 million treatments a year is so low that acupuncture is one of the most statistically safe medical interventions.

We, however, would be very concerned if what you are reporting is completely correct. Leaving a needle in a patient is something which should never happen. The BAcC has very clear guidelines to ensure that this never happens, and we take a very dim view of practitioners who, through negligence or poor record keeping, leave needles in a patient. This is equally because of the risk to the patient and also because of the risk to any other member of the public if a forgotten needle drops out and is trodden on or handled by a third party. This would require what is called PEP treatment, post exposure prophylaxis, because without knowing where a needle came from one has to assume the worst and check for blood borne viruses over a six month period.

More concerning is the possibility that needles are being re-used. In the BAcC members are expressly forbidden to re-use needles, even on the same patient, and anyone doing so would be subject to serious disciplinary action. As we said above, the risk of infection is so small as to be largely theoretical, but even a small risk is too much to entertain if it can be prevented by simple safe practice guidelines. Needles are very cheap, and there is no excuse for using them more than once on any level.

We sincerely hope that this is not a BAcC member, but given the fact that there are two serious defaults from basic safe practice we would be very concerned about the overall standards of practice in someone who was not attentive to these basics of safe practice. It is not our job to encourage people to complain, but if the practitioner does belong to a professional association then we believe that they should be required to give an explanation of what they have been doing. This can often be done anonymously, i.e. you could report the matter without letting your name be known to the practitioner, but in most cases this would mean a professional association could not take formal action. However, if it prevented the practitioner from behaving in this way because they were under notice, so to speak, the public interest will have been well served.

It is possible that what you thought you saw isn't what actually happened - we have had a small number of cases where a practitioner has followed the rules to the letter but from where the patient lay it didn't appear so - but our Codes are very clear that a patient must be able to see everything that is done in plain sight. This means seeing a practitioner open up a fresh needle every time, not suddenly appearing with one in their hand. This is the easiest way to assure patients of good practice standards.

We are sorry that you have had this experience and hope that it hasn't discouraged you from continuing to have treatment, even if not with this practitioner.

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