Our Envisioning the Future blog series gives you a glimpse of some of the exciting and diverse careers and opportunities our ACTCM graduates are pursuing. Our alumni share their stories, experiences, and advice with you. Get to know what motivates them, our ACTCM community—and be inspired!
Dr. Jennifer Ashby, DAOM earned her master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine in 1995 from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM) and her Doctorate of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine from ACTCM in 2010. She has been in practice at The Lotus Center in San Francisco since 1996 and at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine since 2014.
Tell us a bit about how you started your career in Chinese Medicine.
In the early 90s, I started an acupuncture master’s program in San Diego, but soon transferred to ACTCM. I bartended throughout school, and I remember I would show up at school after working till 2 or 4am on my motorcycle with a cup of coffee. I remember all my teachers used to use my pulse in class as the example of someone who was super deficient. I was the one in school that nobody took seriously, but I knew inside how serious I was.
When I graduated, I wasn’t sure who I was going to be in the world of Chinese medicine. So, I tried a bunch of different jobs to figure it out. I was an insurance biller. I helped put together HIV/AIDS and TCM conferences. I taught TCM women’s health at ACTCM for nearly 10 years. I worked for Stanford for 3 years on a study treating depression in pregnant and postpartum women. I kept connected to anybody that I really respected in the field.
In 1996, I started practicing at the Lotus Center in SF and eventually became a co-owner with Miria Toveg, L.Ac.. For the past 5 years, I have also been working at the UCSF Osher Center.
Can you talk a bit about your role at UCSF Osher Center?
I’d been in private practice long enough that I was ready to look beyond the tip of my own nose. I had been doing women’s health for a really long time. And it’s not that it didn’t challenge me, but there was such a paradigm shift happening in medicine and I wanted to be part of that.
My role at UCSF is a clinician and supportive researcher. I am very dedicated to individualized medicine and not protocolizing Chinese medicine; I am lucky to be able to practice like that at Osher. One of the greatest feats of my career is working on a study that looks at the use of acupuncture and pain management for reduction of opioid use with post surgical oncology patients. I helped write the treatment protocol with diagnoses and points for patients. It was amazing because we were able to write the study how we actually practice Chinese medicine.
How does this differ from other research study treatment manuals?
I think that the individualized diagnostics and the pragmatic approach of this manual is very unique. It’s not like if somebody has anxiety, you automatically needle Heart 7. There is a lot more to consider before deciding on a point. There are 16 or more different specific diagnoses and combinations of diagnoses that we see most commonly with our oncology patients. With that, there are an array of points that we have used clinically to assist people based on their side effects and symptoms.
We’re also in a time where we are diagnosing not only based on the cancer itself, and it’s staging and personality, but also based on the nature and characteristics of treatments, such as radiation or chemotherapy. We have been able to recognize how to differentiate the constitution of the person from the treatment they’re going through and how to treat based on that. This treatment manual is great because it’s able to put diagnoses and points together in a reproducible way, while still allowing for individualized treatments.
However, I would never want anyone to view the process that I’m involved with as over medicalizing Chinese medicine. I’m dedicated to the heart of our medicine and its true pre-Chinese Revolution roots. I believe in maintaining all three components of Chinese medicine: the physical, the spiritual, and the emotional. I also understand what an honor it is to be chosen to stand by somebody’s side on their journey, no matter what that journey is, from back pain to cancer. And, that we work for our patients, and hold the knowledge, but that they teach us so much. We walk side by side with our patients, and there should never be a hierarchy in the interaction between patient and provider in any field.
Can you speak about working in an integrative hospital setting?
Integrative is a misnomer. When I think of “integrative,” I think of a group of practitioners, sitting down and deciding together what the best approach to treatment is based on what each field has to offer. We don’t have the time or space to do that. Integrative at the Osher Center means that our MDs have taken integrative training. So, it’s a work in progress for sure, but what we’re doing is cutting edge and the world is watching. We have to be very intentional and methodical. At the end of the day, we are guests at this institution. With the exception of one doctor that I work with, nobody else has studied Chinese medicine, so it becomes a matter of them trusting us. It’s about building trust within Western medicine-dominated institutions. I have to be able to speak their language and translate our medicine in an understandable way, and also let them know that I’m not going to harm their patients. I then allow the outcomes to speak for themselves.
Any advice for current students and recent graduates?
I used to tell my students, don’t specialize too soon. Being a general practitioner for at least 10 years really helps hone your diagnostic skills. And if you’re not a good diagnostician, it doesn’t matter how many formulas and points you can memorize. The focus should always be on becoming the best diagnostician you can.
In my own career, I was a general practitioner until women’s health kind of found me. The joke was that I could make a man menstruate. My early focus in women’s health was on managing and regulating menses. Next it was helping everyone have their babies and recover from delivery. Then, it was helping those get pregnant who might have waited a longer time for whatever reason. Now, it’s perimenopause and menopause. The patient populations that I’ve worked with have kind of shadowed my life and age.
What’s something that currently excites you in the field of TCM?
I’m excited about what I’m doing in the field of polycystic kidney disease. I’ll be starting in the nephrology department at UCSF as an acupuncturist and eventually, hopefully, to launch a pilot study on polycystic kidney disease. We’ll be looking at how lifestyle changes can affect how genes express. The study includes acupuncture, exercise, stress reduction, and diet. One of the things that we’re looking at is a diet that supports kidney function from both a Chinese medicine and Western nephrology perspective. For example, we’d take something that, from a Chinese medicine perspective, is good for the kidneys and then cross-reference first levels of phosphorus, potassium, and sodium and any other irritants that might affect the kidney. It narrows the list significantly.
Interviewed by Rachele Lam.