Dr. Laura Varga, MAcOM 2010, DAOM 2012, works at The Duke Center for Integrative Medicine, where she practices and educates peers and patients towards the goal of true integration in healthcare.
How did your OCOM education lead you to landing your job at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine?
I knew when I began that I would be going through the doctoral program, so I chose OCOM for its standing as an Oriental medicine program. The independent research department, the structure of the staff, and the structure of the education attracted me. The doctorate just gave me the resources I need to treat patients with more severe cases. I have a background in biomedial research and combined with my work at OCOM with Dr. Hammerschlag and Dr. Schnyer, I’ve had the opportunity to be asked to consult as a researcher.
A guest lecturer from Harvard came in while during one of the doctoral modules and spoke of academic medical centers, and that brought my awareness to this type of work setting and led me to explore the east coast for job opportunities. A recommendation I received through my connections at OCOM put me in touch with the director here, and things worked out.
What is the landscape like at Duke?
Well, at Duke Center for Integrative Medicine where I work, my desk sits in between two MDs. I’m the only one doing Chinese and Oriental medicine. I’ve only been here for half of a year, but I’ve already seen patients in every category – oncology, neurology, cardiology, reproductive health. There’s a very wide patient base. Most come to me from internal medicine physician referrals, and others from the diet and fitness center we have here. So I’m lucky. I also have access to the Epic Charting system we use here and the online pharmacy; I use lots of herbal formulas.
Do you think more Doctors of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine will join you in the future at the center?
I think it’s a bright future for Chinese medicine, people in the health care field need more education on the subject, but they’re supportive. I presented a case study recently and there is real support for these treatments from other practitioners. As I’ve gained confidence here I’ve noticed a strong feeling of confidence and appreciation from patients in seeing things come together in one place. So yes, in the future it will grow.
Why is your medicine important in these clinics and how is it integrated?
It’s important because it treats the whole person. Everything is connected. It’s a great place to practice and educate on the medicine, and really normalize its use in integrative settings. I’m charting, I’m e-mailing. I have access to medical records. You don’t have that big gap between seeing a patient that you do in private practice. I can easily follow them from brain surgery, hysterectomy - I’m really just part of it. I love sitting next to the MDs, we can share questions. Little by little you begin to educate. Even with an openness there’s not an understanding. An openness and desire is the first step, but there needs to be an education, and for me that‘s part of the process. There may be hesitancy that a one-on-one connection can make a huge difference with.
You’ve worked extensively in clinical research at the University of Pennsylvania and University of California, San Diegobefore getting your master’s and doctorate. Are you still involved with research at Duke?
Yes. I’m consulting on study design with a colleague here to replicate a study and include Chinese medicine. He called me because he has done research for years on the particular condition, and he’s read that a lot of people have had success with Chinese medicine. So I’m able to coach him to have the tools to do that research. We need DAOMs on the design team of the study as it’s very important to reflect our medicine correctly. It’s a unique opportunity in the large institutional setting to be able to be included in studies like these.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you've faced in your professional practice?
The biggest thing has been to step away from the idea people have of an “acupuncture technician” and getting them to shift to seeing me as a practicing doctor. I often discuss my education, telling them about my degree, telling them about treatment expectations. I have to educate patients and get them to step away from the idea that acupuncture is another pill. That thinking will mask or eliminate any responsibility in self care. Acupuncture is a tool, but it’s not a pill; it’s a process that doesn’t have a set end date. And the key is to do this in a way that is respectful and professional. I don’t ever cross a line to say that someone is wrong or doesn’t know something. I feel integration is based in respect.
Where do you see Traditional Chinese Medicine 10 years from now?
Integrated medicine is at a point right now where it’s going to continue to be brought into hospital settings. I really think we’re on the cusp of a movement. I feel part of my job is to be an ambassador.