Columnist Pete McMartin recently had his article, “Call the doctor–this government is making me sick” published in the Vancouver Sun newspaper. I first heard about the article through a patient who told me not to pick up that day’s paper as I wouldn’t like it. I laughed as it’s not the first time I’ve heard Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and its practices criticized. I’ve been studying and practicing TCM for 16 years now, so none of this is new to me. I look at articles such as this as opportunities to set the record straight and clarify some myths.
There have been many responses from my colleagues on this one. Some are outraged. Some feel defensive. Some are on the attack. I understand those responses, but while it’s easy to state all the facts about where “western medicine” is weak, I’d rather show how TCM is strong because I believe that integration of care needs to happen. And this is best done with professionals from the various therapeutic practices working together, not smashing heads.
Back to McMartin’s article. Premier Christy Clark said, “An innovative health care system must respond to the changing needs of its citizens and embrace practices beyond traditional western medicine.” In response, McMartin writes, “An ancient Asian system of medicine based on dubious and folkloric treatments is suddenly innovative, while “western” medicine, the progress of which has been based solely on the application of rigorous scientific evidence, is suddenly ‘traditional.'”
If it is of McMartin’s opinion that TCM is based on “dubious and folkloric treatments,” that is his right to think that. But he is wrong. As the second largest medical practice in the world, TCM has 3000 plus years of observational study on vast numbers of people. This is the very foundation of science. But if you want modern science, just go to Google Scholar and type in “fMRI acupuncture studies,” “analgesic acupuncture,” or “Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs.” You will see a large number of studies that have been performed, many of them showing the benefits of the therapies we offer. And this is just a starting point.
McMartin goes on to state, “Doubtless, there are those who disagree with my characterization of traditional Chinese medicine. Cultural bias, and all that. (As if ‘culture’ could carry the same weight as science in this issue.).” This is not a cultural issue. I am not Chinese and was not raised with a Chinese cultural understanding. The same can be said for most of the classmates I graduated with. We studied and practice TCM because it works. My patients would agree that that’s also why they seek out TCM treatments.
He then states that in BC, many choose alternative treatments, “however ineffective their doctors might feel they are.” There are, in fact, a growing number of medical doctors (MDs) who recommend “alternative treatments,” including TCM and acupuncture, as they recognize the benefits of these therapies, especially in complex and chronic cases. In some of these cases, Western medicine simply does not have any solution. I get referrals of patients from MDs, both within the integrative clinic where I work as well as from MDs outside of my clinic. And an increasing number of MDs are taking courses to learn acupuncture and herbals. Of course there are some MDs who do not fall into this category. One of my friends told me that her MD said that she does not believe in the effectiveness of any alternative medicine. Wow! But, many–I’d like to think most–are at least open to the therapies, especially when they see their patients benefit.
Next, McMartin writes specifically against the government’s proposal to establish university degrees for TCM. He quotes the B.C. Medical Association president Dr. Shelley Ross as saying, “We have concerns (about the establishment of such a school) because we’re not sure there’s enough scientific evidence that traditional Chinese medicine is equal to western medicine.” I like what the TCMABC wrote about this: “Equal? Is a peach equal to an apple?” Once again, TCM has already proven its effectiveness, and continues to do so, both on clinical as well as academic platforms. TCM is different, but no less valid than western medicine. This is not a competition of us versus them. Or at least I would like it to not be.
Ross stated, “If (patients) delay their treatment by the use of Chinese medicine, we’re concerned they may miss the window of treatment with western medicine.” But my colleagues and I know that the majority of our patients are ones that have already been through months and even years of conventional testing and therapies. They come to us in pain, tired, depressed, sick, and frustrated because they haven’t been helped. They have tried the pharmaceuticals. They have gone through surgeries. They have waited in line for ages to get their testing. We see them, and sometimes they say, “You’re my last hope.” McMartin and Ross, I’d like to ask you, would you deny them this chance to receive TCM treatment? How about when they do improve with the help of my colleagues and me?
Now, let’s talk about cost. McMartin argues that the cost of developing the degree program would be better spent on more doctors and physios; shorter surgical wait times; more efficient models of delivery; and a new St. Paul’s Hospital. How much money does he really think will go into this potential degree program? There are already 3 programs and 3 provincial licensing exams, along with a provincial regulatory body (CTCMA) in place for TCM. The programs are a 3-year acupuncture or herbology program, a 4-year TCM Practitioner (both herbs and acupuncture) program, and a 5-year Dr.TCM program. In addition, prior to writing the licensing examinations (note that all 3 provincial licensing exams, each with both a written and a practical component, need to be passed for the Dr.TCM registration), applicants must complete at least 2 years of post-secondary schooling. So, to transition the programs from diploma to degree is not a start-from-scratch issue. In addition, TCM is a far less expensive medical model than western medicine. If you want the science to support that, again, go to Google Scholar and search “cost effectiveness acupuncture.” We’re looking for long-term solutions to our economic woes. But maybe McMartin is so stuck on the pill-popping quick fix idea that he has forgotten that there is no magic pill for this, and that creating more opportunities to study TCM in a university setting can help us financially as well as medically. Surgeries, pharmaceuticals, tests. These are all expensive! Acupuncture needles, herbs, food. Relatively inexpensive. Both medical models are needed.
Shouldn’t we be praising those who have made the move to try “alternative therapies?” When they see qualified, good TCM practitioners, they are taught how to play an active role in their own health. They are taught about wellness, not just disease. They are saving our province money. Many of my patients pay completely out-of-pocket for their treatments. They do so because they find the treatments of value. This, at no cost to the government coffers.
Finally, and the part that baffles me the most, as it is an argument that I had not yet heard, McMartin writes, “Let’s identify this idea for what it really is: It is a nod to B.C.’s sizable Chinese community, and a cheap, and I hope empty, ploy from a desperate government that will do anything to win votes.” Really?!
McMartin implies here that those of Chinese descent are the majority of practitioners and recipients of TCM therapies, so the government’s move here is to suck up for votes. I don’t have the stats, but I am in the field. I don’t classify my patients into categories of Chinese and non-Chinese, but I could confidently state that my patients come from a variety of cultural backgrounds and Chinese is not in the majority. I know a number of my colleagues could say the same.
This is clearly a topic that I could go on and on about. But to complete my rebuttal of McMartin’s article, I will address my title, Journalist Proves Himself Ignorant. I chose this title specifically as it seems that what gets published and draws attention is sadly often not what is the full truth. It is a bold statement that provides the opening for controversy. I’m sure that McMartin is not ignorant in all respects. But in this case, he would better serve his readers by getting his facts straight and perhaps interviewing someone who actually knows about TCM. I would love to invite Pete McMartin to my clinic for a TCM treatment!