Getting to the Point

Bonnie Povolny and Robert Davis of Acupuncture Vermont aim to take acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine out of the realm of alternative health

by Portland Helmich

Acupuncturists Bonnie Povolny and Robert Davis met at Southwest Acupuncture College in 1996. By the time they had their degrees in Oriental medicine, they had decided to open a clinic together in South Burlington.

For consumers of tofu, practitioners of yoga and devotees of meditation, having someone insert threadlike, stainless steel needles into specific points on their bodies to treat their allergies, migraines or menstrual cramps might be as normal as calling a plumber to fix a leaky faucet. Acupuncture is one of the most common alternative, or complementary, health practices in the United States today; nonetheless, there are those who view it as nothing more than a glorified form of voodoo.

While licensed acupuncturists Robert Davis and Bonnie Povolny see more wheat grass drinkers than hard-core skeptics at Acupuncture Vermont in South Burlington, their target market is made up of people like Wanda Ryan who works in an oral surgeon's office and developed tennis elbow from repetitively scrubbing surgical instruments.

"It was like a massive toothache in my elbow," remembers Ryan. "I got cortisone injections and went through physical and occupational therapy, but none of it really helped."

Restricted to working half-time, Ryan, who had never tried any form of alternative medicine, gave acupuncture a try because her husband's colleague had suffered from the same condition and had been helped by the ancient Chinese healing tool. "The next step would have been surgery," recalls Ryan, "and there was only a one-in-four chance it would get any better."

Less than a month after receiving acupuncture treatments from Davis, Ryan says she began to notice relief. Two months after her initial visit, she was back to working full-time. "The pain is so minimal now that I can ignore it," she declares. "I'm a total believer."

Unlike acupuncturists who, because of their offbeat natures or low-profile business styles, serve a certain niche, Davis and Povolny try to appeal to mainstream consumers. "You don't have to be a vegetarian who shops at health food stores to come to our clinic," Davis says.

"We really see people from all walks of life," Povolny agrees.

Open since November 1999, Acupuncture Vermont has a client base of approximately 700. While Davis and Povolny have treated children as well as the elderly, both admit that women in their childbearing years make up the greatest portion of their practice. "Statistics show that females make 80 percent of the health care decisions in their families," Davis remarks.

"We deal with women's health issues very effectively," Povolny continues. "Things like infertility, PMS and menopause are not always dealt with well in other forms of medicine, but they can be well-treated with acupuncture and herbal remedies."

In the United States, acupuncture is frequently used for pain relief. In this case, it seems, Davis and Povolny almost half of whose patients also receive herbal medicine from them are similar to their Oriental medicine colleagues, treating conditions like tendinitis, back problems, arthritis and headaches. The thirty-something duo (both are married to other people; Davis has two young sons) says acupuncture has a "high probability of success" with such conditions; Povolny adds that it's effective on asthma and is a "great form of rehabilitation post-stroke."

Neither Povolny nor Davis views acupuncture as a replacement for Western medicine; both recognize its limitations with life-threatening conditions. If someone is suffering from the negative side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, acupuncture is an excellent complementary treatment, they say, as it can help to ease nausea and fatigue.

That this two-person health care team has created a business that appeals to a broad cross section of the community isn't surprising given their eclectic backgrounds. Davis, who grew up near Gettysburg, Pa., studied theology at Ambassador University in Pasadena, Calif. "It was a liberal arts background," he says. "I wasn't training to be in the clergy."

After graduating in 1990, he spent six years in Minnesota as a commercial roofing contractor in his wife's family business. "I didn't want to do it forever," he admits, "but it educated me about running a business. Contracting, sales, marketing I loved that side of it."

Long interested in health care, Davis investigated professions like chiropractic, naturopathic and conventional medicine.

"I didn't come to acupuncture because I'd been cured of migraines," he says. "I looked at it from a career perspective. What I liked is that it had a long history. It hadn't survived thousands of years because it didn't work, and yet it was a young profession in America. I liked the idea of being on the cutting edge, but not dealing with a fad."

Acupuncture Vermont 's office manager, Kate Gavin, also studied acupuncture for three years.

Povolny's father is a physicist; her mother is a chemist. Following suit, Povolny was pre-med upon entering Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio.

Though she spent more than two years there, the Ohio native eventually opted to take time off and work in environmental politics as a citizen outreach director for Denver's Colorado Public Interest Research Group.

Three years later, she enrolled at St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M.; the school, she says, is where her interest in acupuncture took shape.

"I took a class in t'ai chi at school," she remembers, "and I knew there was something different going on in my body that I hadn't experienced before." As the soft-spoken Midwesterner began reading books about Oriental medical theory and philosophy, her interest grew. "It seemed more cohesive than the medicine I'd studied earlier," she explains. "It made more sense."

It was at Santa's Fe's Southwest Acupuncture College that Davis and Povolny met in 1996. By the time they graduated with masters of science in Oriental medicine in 1999, the two had discussed opening a clinic together. The question was where.

"In this country," explains Davis, "it's not like acupuncturists get hired by the local hospital. Most go into private practice."

On a tip from Davis' parents, who were impressed by Vermont from traveling through on vacation, and at the suggestion of friend of Povolny's in Waterbury, the new business partners decided to set up shop in Vermont.

Finding a central location (their clinic is behind McDonald's on Shelburne Road), hiring an office manager and advertising their practice in print were important. Davis and Povolny didn't want to go the route of their professional peers, many of whom practice at home and build clients only through word-of-mouth. "Most acupuncturists want to be acupuncturists," Davis says. "They don't want to be business people."

"There's not a division between the physical and the emotional in Chinese medicine," Davis says.

Because many insurance companies still do not cover acupuncture treatments, 90 percent of Acupuncture Vermont's customers pay out of pocket. This fact, Davis says, makes customer service especially important. "When third-party payment's involved," he explains, "people tend to tolerate lousy service. They'll wait an hour to see their doctor because they don't think they have a choice."

With this in mind, Davis and Povolny developed a "No-Wait" guarantee. If clients wait more than 15 minutes for an appointment, they're compensated with a special treat. "They get a choice," Povolny notes, "of a movie pass, a gift card to Blockbuster video, a bag of green tea or some chocolates."

Davis and Povolny support acupuncture's inclusion into the range of services covered by insurance companies, but realize that having little financial regulation is an advantage. "We've been able to avoid the adversarial relationship between cost counters and health care practitioners," Davis says. "Some doctors practically have to see a patient every six minutes to control escalating costs, but we can do as we prefer."

What they prefer is to take time with patients. Initial visits are 90 minutes and run $85. At that time, Davis and Povolny, who see patients separately, take a full health history. Subsequent visits last an hour and cost $60.

Because Chinese medicine takes a whole-person approach to treating illness, Davis and Povolny, who are also trained in cosmetic acupuncture and facial rejuvenation, don't treat solely corporeal complaints.

"If I'm treating you for a skin problem, and you just had a terrible divorce and are going to lose your job, we're going to talk about that," Davis explains. "There's not a division between the physical and the emotional in Chinese medicine. Stress can affect physical issues, and physical problems can affect emotions."

"It's called the mind-body connection," Povolny summarizes.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, acupuncture needles are as slender as a hair and can hardly be felt as they are inserted.

Like all acupuncturists, Davis and Povolny work with Qi (pronounced"chee"). In traditional Chinese medicine, Qi is the life force or energy present in all living things.

By inserting disposable needles at any one of more than 300 points along 12 main meridians (energy channels where Qi flows), Davis and Povolny try to adjust the flow of Qi so it flows without obstruction in the body, improving health by way of restoring harmony and balance.

Counterintuitive though it might be, Povolny says, patients often describe the insertion of acupuncture needles as the release of pain.

"They're about as thin as a hair," Davis explains. "You could fit them inside needles used for injections. Most people describe the sensation as a dull ache, a twitch or nothing at all."

The partners say that as patients lie still with needles inserted for 15 to 30 minutes, what ensues is a feeling of calm and relaxation. "Most of them love it!" Davis exclaims. "They say, 'Do I have to go?' Now, have you ever heard someone say that about a nerve conduction test or an MRI?"

Linda Vieulleux knows just what Davis means. "I miss not going there twice a week anymore," she insists. Down to bimonthly visits three months after turning to Acupuncture Vermont for relief from a year's worth of "excruciating" facial pain centered around her nose and an upper tooth, Vieulleux is clearly satisfied.

"I'm so much better," she asserts. "I was at my wit's end. I'd seen seven doctors in a year, had two root canals and was on some extremely powerful medication that left me dangling. Bonnie has been marvelous. She's very gentle and listens to you so carefully."

How acupuncture works isn't thoroughly understood. One suggestion is that it stimulates the production of endorphins, the body's natural pain killers. That acupuncture works is indisputable to Davis and Povolny; nevertheless, they're interested in helping to prove it.

The partners are collecting data for Dr. Helene Langevin, a medical doctor and licensed acupuncturist at the University of Vermont's department of neurology who is researching acupuncture's efficacy through a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

"There's a belief," Povolny says, "that you have to believe in acupuncture for it to work, but that's not true. It works on animals."

Increasing their profession's legitimacy ties into Davis and Povolny's business mission, part of which is to make acupuncture more accessible to the average person. "Our hope," Povolny muses, "is that people will use us for their general care that they'll begin to think of us first."

Friends outside the office, Davis and Povolny also hope to reach out to those who might not otherwise be exposed to acupuncture's purported benefits. They're developing contracts with area social service agencies to provide acupuncture to individuals who suffer from substance abuse, as there's evidence that it reduces cravings and eases withdrawal. "We'd really like to bring this to a broader segment of society," Povolny stresses.

In addition to bringing on another acupuncturist in a year, the mild-mannered practitioners have visions of opening another clinic within three to five years. The challenge is knowing when to expand. "Similar to any small business," Davis says, "we're at a stage where we're growing, but how do you grow in a contained way that's not too fast? We don't want to overextend ourselves."

"It can be tough to work on the business and in the business at the same time," Povolny says with a nod.

Behind Povolny is a wall of Chinese herbal remedies she and Davis, use in their practice at Acupuncture Vermont.

Collaboration is key for Davis and Povolny, who describe themselves as similar in many ways. Each, however, focuses on his or her business strengths. Davis oversees more of the advertising, while Povolny handles bookkeeping and "the desk."

At Acupuncture Vermont's front desk sits office manager Kate Gavin, who has studied traditional Chinese medicine for three years. For Gavin, being employed by Davis and Povolny appears to be as relaxing as receiving one of their treatments. "I love working for both of them," she says. "There's never any friction in the office."

Davis suggests a possible reason: "Bonnie and I respect each other a lot. We're not adamant about things. If the other person feels strongly about something, we're willing to compromise."

Povolny views the office harmony as any good Chinese medical doctor would. "It's good Qi," she says with a knowing grin. "Good Qi." •

Originally published in January 2002 Business People-Vermont