Multi-Level Marketing (MLM), also known as Network Marketing (NM), is a controversial topic that usually stimulates polarized views and strong opinions. MLM in the acupuncture profession provokes similar intense debate.
At one end of the spectrum you have those who see MLM as a "pyramid scheme", or nothing more than a scam to get some unknown person rich at the expense of many hard working souls who naively buy-in to the scheme, hoping they too will get rich.
Then at the other end of the spectrum you have the over-the-top enthusiast who swears the products are far superior to any other products on the market. The hype about the products often leads to inaccurate statements about how they will cure everything from the common cold to cancer. Then there is the hype about the MLM company itself and it usually goes something along the lines of how the company is solving world peace, feeding starving children, and changing the world.
Within the acupuncture profession you have those who believe MLM has no place and should be limited, if not banned. In fact, steps have been taken against Chiropractors (in Wisconsin) to prevent them from selling products to their patients through MLM. The concern is that by participating in an MLM organization it constitutes "fee splitting", which is illegal and places practitioners in the potential position of choosing profits over care.
Because of this real or perceived conflict of interest many acupuncturists have taken a "hands-off" approach to MLM, meaning they reject any product that is acquired through the Network Marketing business model. Period.
Then there are acupuncturists who are actively promoting MLM nutritional supplements and herbal products as well as the company's Multi-Level Marketing "business opportunity" to patients, co-workers, employees, and anyone else within 3-feet of contact.
With these varying degrees of interest and understanding, it is no wonder that Multi-Level Marketing is a controversial topic in health care.
Acupuncturists are in a unique position. As practitioners of holistic medicine we use our expertise in Chinese dietary principles to effectively evaluate our patient's nutritional needs. In turn, we often recommend any combination of dietary changes, Chinese herbs, vitamins, juices, and supplements as they pertain to Oriental medical food theory and the individual needs of the patient.
Most if not all of these food-based products fall under the the protection of the FDA's 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education (DSHEA) Act. There are a myriad of Pros and the Cons to this Act, but the primary ones to pay attention to are:
For better or worse, more regulation is on the way. And there are independent watch-dog groups that are committed to measuring the supposed active ingredients in natural supplements, and the "claims" made by the companies that manufacture them. In the meantime, Multi-Level Marketing companies can rely on word-of-mouth sales from their distributors without having to sink millions of dollars into advertising, marketing, research, and quality assurance. That's not to say that some companies do invest in these important steps. But which ones?
Part of our job as health care TCM practitioners is to research and provide excellent quality Chinese Herbal products and nutritional advice. With the recent questions about the quality and safety of the food supply as it pertains to imports from China, we as practitioners of Chinese medicine have an extra responsibility to research the products we recommend and sell. This has led some acupuncturists to researching a wide variety of herbal and natural supplement sources, including those provided by MLM companies.
Is there is a middle ground where acupuncturists can ethically and responsibly participate in Multi-Level Marketing? Can acupuncturists and other holistic practitioners provide quality health care products via MLM to their patients without all the nonsense and hype associated with the "sharing" techniques inherent in Network Marketing?
I believe the answer is yes, and it comes in the form of InterNetwork Marketing. If MLM is a viable, ethical, and sound business model that can be integrated successfully into an acupuncturist's practice, we need to realize that any Multi-Level Marketing company is selling two things: (1) Their Products, and (2) Their Business Model. Acupuncturists on the other hand are only selling one thing to their patients, the Products. My personal belief is that Acupuncturists should not be selling the "Business Opportunity" to patients.
If a product is effective and provides safe and valuable health benefits, I believe we have the obligation to evaluate it regardless of the stigma of the business model in which it is made available to us.
The truth is, we have the option of selling ALL our herbs and supplements at the retail prices, whether we acquire them through a wholesale company or as a distributor for a Multi-Level Marketing company. Selling all products at retail prices may eliminate any perceived conflict of interest. The problem with this scenario however is that patients can get the same products at the discounted wholesale price simply by us informing them how to purchase directly through the MLM company as a "preferred customer" (or however the MLM company defines membership). To withhold this information also seems like a conflict of interest.
From a business perspective, you make money either way. Whether you sell products at retail or as a distributor you earn a profit. The difference is not to you, it is to your patient, because your patient can save money by ordering directly through the MLM company when you refer them.
If our goals are to get our patients the most effective products at the least expensive prices, then should we not consider MLM as a possible resource?
As I stated earlier, I do not have the answers. Each individual acupuncturist must arrive at their own decision based on their individual understanding.
If you are considering incorporating Multi-Level Marketing into your acupuncture practice I suggest that you do your homework.
Check out your specific state's regulations in case there are any restrictions (like the one in Wisconsin preventing chiropractors from selling MLM products through their clinical practice). Also you may want to draft a "Full Disclosure" statement for your patients to sign that simply states up front that the products are attained through a Multi-Level Marketing company. If your patients have strong feelings about this business model then they can ask to purchase them through you at the retail prices, or ask that you recommend different (non-MLM) products all together.
If you are going to participate with any MLM companies, in order to get the most out of your business, avoid failure, and maintain your self-respect, I highly recommend you check out Ann Sieg's FREE Report called, The 7 Great Lies Of Network Marketing. Although she is not a health care practitioner, she has a great deal of experience and an "alternative" (and not very popular!) view of MLM. In her report you'll discover some of the biggest myths that cause the vast majority of MLM-ers to lose money and waste years of effort. You will also find that she has developed an alternative approach to MLM that respects the consumer, seeks to educate rather than sell, and is based on developing sound marketing skills.
This information does not excuse you from researching any MLM company and products that you are promoting. Above all else, health care providers must not succumb to the hype. I know that acupuncturists have great integrity and place a priority on recommending to their patients only those products that are excellent quality, highly effective, and as accessible and inexpensive as possible.
As stated previously, Acupuncturists participating in Multi-Level-Marketing is a controversial subject. Please feel free to voice your opinions and share your experiences. Some of the top alternative medicine practitioners on the web promote Multi-Level Marketing companies in one form or another. This is a business model that is here to stay. It makes good business sense for acupuncturists to determine if MLM is a sound model that can be put to good economic use.