Since 1992, the Immune Enhancement Project in Portland (IEP-Portland) has been the number one referral site for people with serious, often debilitating, and life threatening conditions to receive low cost and free treatment relying on acupuncture and Chinese herbs as an adjunct to standard medical care. Over 5,000 patients have received treatment at this site, one of many locations for the project.
The Immune Enhancement Project (IEP) began in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1983, growing out of work done by Institute for Traditional Medicine (ITM) and its students and colleagues and emerging as a clinical offering in 1985. The project’s name came from the intended effort to counter immune suppression caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the project primarily involved providing acupuncture and Chinese herbs. ITM guided the herbal medicine component of the project, which was based on published Chinese efforts to counter immune suppression caused by modern cancer therapies. ITM also served as the clearinghouse for information about the project as it spread from its initial base in San Francisco.
Due to the interest in this work and the apparent benefits of the therapeutic approach, Immune Enhancement Projects sprung up in many cities during the 1980s and 1990s, primarily in the United States, but also in Canada and Europe, following the basic protocols that ITM was developing. In the San Francisco Bay area, two large projects emerged from the initial small group, one as part of the Quan Yin Healing Arts Center and another that was named IEP Clinic. These, along with the other major IEP facilities, treated thousands of patients at that time. When IEP was established at the ITM office on Hawthorne Blvd. in Portland, its patient population rapidly grew, gaining referrals from several other agencies, including Cascade AIDS Project, Oregon Health and Sciences University, Central City Concern, and several area hospitals. This facility continues to operate at the same site, having undergone remodeling in 2009 and then clinic repair in 2015 following a flooding event. Today, IEP Portland is staffed to offer 130 acupuncture treatments and 40 shiatsu treatments per week.
The focus on treatment of HIV-related immune suppression shifted when effective drugs for the virus were introduced at the end of 1995. In particular, since the immune enhancing herb strategies used for IEP were influenced by Chinese work with cancer patients, IEP-Portland shifted to providing adjunct care for cancer patients going through chemotherapy and/or radiation. Also, other immune system disorders, particularly autoimmunity, were being understood as involving failure of one part of the immune system to control the part attacking the body cells, and thus immune enhancement was understood to have a potentially important role in those disorders as well. Over time, IEP came to specialize in a relatively small range of challenging medical areas, using its prior experience and ongoing research toward developing additional treatment strategies with acupuncture, herbs, and other natural health care methods.
The most evident effects of IEP for its patients are the access to high quality treatments at little cost, and doing so remains a key element of the project. However, the participants at IEP are contributing to a much broader goal, one that has rectified certain deficiencies in this field of health care. The practice of Chinese medicine in the United States was virtually absent prior to the 1980s. Most of the training practitioners initially received was in acupuncture, not herbs, and acupuncture was most commonly used for treatment of pain, and secondarily for discomforts such as menopausal hot flashes, digestive disturbance, and low energy, but not aimed at addressing serious disease conditions like HIV infection and cancer. Therefore, little information existed as to how the Chinese medical system might be properly utilized in the modern setting when these health problems were presented. One of the goals of IEP is to provide practical training for practitioners in managing people with life threatening and debilitating health problems and to be able to explain to practitioners who are not able to work onsite what can be reasonably expected by following a similar therapeutic approach at their own clinical facilities.
Another aim of IEP is to introduce acupuncture and related therapies to those who have not yet tried this method of health care or who have had only very minimal exposure to them. The project is not intended to serve as just one more to attend for acupuncture, but to be an entry point into this approach to health care; patients who would not normally choose to utilize acupuncture and Chinese herbs get to IEP through recommendations and referrals. It is our hope that the new experience of natural health care will stimulate an overall re-evaluation of how ideas and daily practices can lead to an improvement in managing serious health problems.
As a result of its past 25 years of intensive efforts to investigate and apply Chinese medical and naturopathic treatments, Portland IEP has provided valuable insights into these areas of concern. Currently, most of the 25,000 practitioners in the U.S. have some idea of how to proceed with the difficult and debilitating diseases and know to turn to ITM for further information.
IEP has four basic methods to help patients that are not necessarily followed by many providers of traditional Chinese medicine:
We approximate the strategies used in China of frequent acupuncture and high dose herbs to attain quick results. In the West, many practitioners learned what acupuncture points to treat and which herbs might be useful, but did not receive guidance about their specific applications, and, as a result, it became common practice to offer acupuncture only once per week (or even less) and to provide low doses of herbs (if herbs were used at all).
Through its non-profit structure, IEP offers treatment at a single low monthly fee, which could be lowered to zero. The frequency of treatment and use of herbs and supplements is not based on cost considerations, but on medical needs.
Patients are expected to make full use of modern medical methods to control their health problems, and at IEP are supported by not only acupuncture and herbs, but also shiatsu (a type of pressure massage), and naturopathic consults. In this way, patients can gain a full health care experience without feeling the necessity to search further for additional answers.
Patients at IEP are patients of the clinic, not of an individual practitioner. Over time, each patient has the opportunity to experience contact with and influence from each of the staff members. This reliance on multiple practitioners allows maximum flexibility for patients in finding suitable appointment times because there is no need to fit into a particular practitioner’s schedule.
While these somewhat unique characteristics are difficult to replicate elsewhere, the basics of frequent acupuncture, use of herbs, and reliance on both modern medicine and traditional medicine can be provided similarly at clinics across the country. Therefore, patients have no need to travel long distances to get good quality services but can turn to local practitioners who have easy access to the full range of knowledge and experience that IEP has accumulated.