When Annapolis acupuncturist Margaret M. Mullins was asked to present a paper at a health conference in China last spring, it posed a challenge.
What could she say that was enlightening about acupuncture to professionals who had mastered the practice far better than she?
The solution, she decided, was to tell it like it is.
"I am embarrassed to speak of acupuncture in the midst of those who have thousands of years of tradition and experience in Chinese medicine, compared to my 15 years," she began her talk at the First Annual International Women's Medical Conference held in Beijing.
"I know that even the best practitioners in the United States are maybe at a grade-school level and have much to learn from you."
Dr. Mullins, an internist as well as acupuncturist, then went on to tell her colleagues about the state of acupuncture and alternative medicine in the United States and how it has changed over the years.
She has seen the greatest change in the past five years, during which time nontraditional medical practices have gone from being considered far-out and strange to accepted by a majority of people.
She cited a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that stated a third of Americans were using or had used at some time medical treatments not considered mainstream.
And based on the number of patients she sees at her Annapolis practice, she said, she would estimate the number at closer to 50 percent.
Back home in the United States, she spoke last week about her practice and experiences in China.
Although many people may still consider acupuncture "alternative medicine," she considers it "complementary."
Most often, she said, patients get the best results from a combination of mainstream medicine and drugs along with acupuncture, although there are plenty of occasions when acupuncture itself achieves the desired result.
During her 10-day trip in China in March and April, touring Chinese hospitals and participating in the international conference on women's health, she became more convinced than ever that American doctors must do a better job combining mainstream Western medicine with nontraditional techniques.
The Chinese, she reported, have had wonderful success treating a variety of illnesses, including a number of cancers, using a combination of mainstream drugs, herbal treatments and other techniques.
"I started using acupuncture in 1981 because it addressed issues that Western medicine did not address," she said. "At the conference, I became more convinced than ever about the importance of its role . . . All the Chinese practices -- herbal medicine, massage, exercise, acupuncture -- they all have their place."
Dr. Mullins, the only medical doctor in the county who also practices acupuncture, has treated everything from sinusitis to inflammatory bowel disease with acupuncture.
The most common complaint of patients seeking treatment is chronic pain, most often lower back and neck pain and headaches.
She has had success with most patients, many of whom have experienced relief after just one session. Most come one or two times a week for up to several months for treatments, which are generally covered by insurance.
"We tend to get a lot of patients as the last resort," she said. "A lot have tried many different things before coming here."
She recognizes that some medical professionals might question these results, but that doesn't matter.
What matters most is the health and well-being of the patients.
"There's a lot we can learn from the Chinese," she said. "Everything I learned on the trip has confirmed that West and East really belong together."