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Prickle-d for Good

23 April 2014 at 11:27 am
Staff Reporter
A unique social enterprise is bringing Chinese Medicine to Australia’s marginalised, drawing on China’s success in using alternative therapies to treat its booming population.

Staff Reporter | 23 April 2014 at 11:27 am


Prickle-d for Good
23 April 2014 at 11:27 am

A unique social enterprise is bringing Chinese Medicine to Australia’s marginalised, drawing on China’s success in using alternative therapies to treat its booming population.

Prickle Community Acupuncture in inner Melbourne is bridging the gap for people who want to receive acupuncture and Chinese medicine but can’t afford the cost.

Established in 2009, the organisation is providing a treatment that has a history of being expensive and only accessible to people on medium to high incomes at a heavily discounted rate for the disadvantaged. Intended to stimulate the body’s energies, the traditional Chinese practice involves the insertion of needles into key points of the anatomy.

Now, what started out as an operation from a spare room at a physiotherapy office has transformed into an independent clinic staffed by a team of qualified and registered acupuncturists.

Co-founders Christine Lee and Joanne Sharkey studied together at university, and then interned in China to hone their craft.

A desire to create a space for acupuncture in Australian community health systems was the kickstarter for the venture, which, with the assistance of Inner East Community Health, now operates as the only clinic in Australia that does what it does.

International Wisdom

Prickle draws on lessons from the Chinese and other overseas systems to meet its mission of providing access to affordable acupuncture in a community health setting.

“Prickle was created because we felt acupuncture was quite affordable to deliver but expensive to receive as a consumer,” Co-founder Christine Lee said.

“There was a really big gap of people who couldn’t receive acupuncture, but could benefit a lot, like people with chronic illnesses that prevent them from working.”

Multi-bed community acupuncture, a model Lee says is quite popular in China, helps provide a service that is accessible to all parts of the community.

Many patients may be tended to at a time, rather than single patients being isolated and treated in dark rooms.

“In China it’s different,” Lee says. “There’s a lot more people and a lot of treatment is done in public spaces – they’re quite confident with that.

“That model has been picked up a lot around the world…it’s rising in the US and the UK. It’s exploded where there’s not widespread public health insurance.”

Lee says Australian attitudes have proven to favour privacy and prefer a model of individual patient care.  

“The multi-bed system hasn’t really been done successfully in Australia,” she says.

“It’s a little bit behind here. I think the class structure is different.”

Low Cost

Despite being foreign, the low cost model is helping open acupuncture up to new segments of the community.

A dramatically reduced concession price is made available to those experiencing disadvantage, such as asylum seeker or refugee, Indigenous Australians, victims of abuse, the homeless, veterans or people with a disability.

The ratio of standard fees to concession fees and number of treatments administered are the key metrics used to track Prickle’s impact on the community. Currently, the ratio is approximately 70 per cent of customers paying concession fees, with 30 per cent paying the standard fee.

“We target our services a lot more to those paying the concession fee,” Lee says.

Lee says acupuncture is a treatment that may demand frequent visits. In China, some people may visit an acupuncturist every day.

“I do think it’s as accessible for people with low incomes now because of the price,” she says.

Lee says acupuncture is a treatment that may demand frequent visits. In China, some people may visit an acupuncturist every day.

“I see a lot of people who are curious. And they are curious because they are skeptical,” she says.

“Many have either never tried it, or have tried it but cannot afford to continue.”

Working with the Disadvantaged

Working with marginalised communities to deliver social impact has delivered some unique challenges to Prickle’s professional staff.

“It’s been really eye-opening and uplifting,” Lee says. “There have been challenges. Now, we’ve kind of ironed out the challenges.

“There can be some issues with compliance.When I worked in a private clinic, the clients were all very motivated – they’d come back and would have been able to follow diet and exercise advice. Some of our clients don’t have the same control over lifestyle issues. It’s not as easy to affect that change.

“When we were working from the physio rooms there was a perception we were very much part of the community health service. Now that we’ve got our own clinic and it’s quite separate it’s becoming easier to get people to follow through.”

Multi-bed does come at a cost, Lee says.

“Prickle’s different from a lot of other clinics in that some patients see more than one practitioner. Because we’re a multi-bed clinic we don’t really have time to foster those relationships,” she says.

Recent projects have seen Prickle staff aiding asylum seekers in the community through programs with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and City of Melbourne. 

“It’s been fantastic,” Lee says. “The treatment is very effective with them, and they get all these other benefits as well, like the socialisation.

“There is a language and cultural barrier. Sometimes it’s really quite new to them. Their severity of symptoms is not something we usually see.”

Crunch Time

The success of Prickle is in part Lee’s overcoming of an initially prickly response to the prospect of business training.

In 2011/12, the organisation was a participant in the Crunch program, run by social enterprise incubator Not for Profit Social Traders.

“In truth, I found it really challenging,”Lee says. “I’m a Chinese medicine practitioner, so market research is not something I know. I did have a lot of preconceived notions and resistance to a lot of the training and the business approach that’s part of training with The Crunch.

“It’s made me a lot more mature…with the whole business side of it. I had an ideological resistance and wasn’t very apt but I think it has been unbelievably helpful in getting where we are.”

The organisation has had to readjust its business forecasts on more than one occasion – an inconsistency Lee says resulted from the fact Prickle was essentially unprecedented.

“We didn’t meet our initial projections. I think that’s because we didn’t have much to compare to,” she says.

“We were relying on a lot more referrals from within the health field. It’s been a lot lower than expected.”

Despite the stumble, Lee says it will be full steam ahead for Prickle from here on.

In 2014 the organisation will launch a Mental Health Acupuncture Program, providing acupuncture support to vulnerable individuals who are suffering from an acute mental health condition.

The complex operation, managing a team of professional staff and a growing patient roster, is sure to keep Lee on her feet.

“I think our biggest challenge has been putting as much energy as we needed to get everything up and running,” she says. “Now we are looking at our growth –  and keeping everything consistent.”

Staff Reporter  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

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