“There’s always going to be detractors,” B.C.’s Minister of Advanced Education, Amrik Virk, said in an article titled “Chinese medicine critic argues against B.C. school” posted by 24 Hours Vancouver. True. I have been practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) since I graduated from the 4 year program in 2001, so I know a lot about critics to this and other alternative and complementary medicine practices.
[If you want to read my shorter version of this article, as published in 24 Hours newspaper, click here.]
In the beginning, I found facing that opposition challenging. On a near daily basis, I felt like I needed to justify the validity of this long-standing medical system. I felt like I needed to be ready, on the defensive, anytime someone asked me what I was studying.
I never feel like that anymore. Partly, this is because TCM is much more common and widely accepted in North America. Where I used to have to try to explain TCM and acupuncture to anyone I met, I now more commonly find that the response to the, “What do you do?” question is, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to try acupuncture” or, “My friend just started going to school for that” or, “Cool. I just saw my TCM doctor last week.”
More deeply, my reason I now never think about prepping a response to a negative attitude to my profession is because I am confident in my knowledge that it works. I have seen its effectiveness. I see it work on a daily basis. I know there will be detractors, but I also know that I am not alone in my understanding that this medical system is powerful and effective.
So, when I was asked to respond to this article, in which a China-based opponent of TCM, Albert Zhang, stated that “a B.C. government plan to fund a school teaching the discipline will waste money and pass on techniques he alleges can be dangerous,” I had to stretch those old muscles that used to always be ready to spring to the defense of TCM. I wanted to write a fair response, stating facts, not just my opinion. I wanted to do more than just throw back reminders about the statistics of deaths caused by pharmaceuticals every year; about the high, extremely high—one more time—atrociously high cost of pharmaceuticals and surgeries; about the inherent flaws in our modern science and research; or about the growing numbers of patients dissatisfied by the conventional care system’s approach to their chronic disease.
My opinion is not enough. I understand that it is important that we continuously scrutinize the ways that we practice medicine and healthcare (“medicine” is often different than “health care,” and both are important). We also need to be discriminating in how we spend our limited public budgets.
I see two main questions raised by this article. One, is TCM an effective medicine that can be safely practiced? And, two, is it a good idea for the government to fund a TCM program at one of our public universities?
If you want to get the media’s attention, use the words, “dangerous” or “harmful.” Zhang clearly knows this, as he tries to alarm the public about TCM. TCM treatments are not innocuous. They are powerful therapies that must be administered by qualified professionals. Luckily, in British Columbia, TCM is a regulated health profession. We must be licensed and registered in order to practice. I, and most of my B.C. colleagues, use only one-time use sterile needles. Good practitioners will also answer your questions about the quality and source of the herbs and supplements they provide. The herbs I use are from third party tested suppliers that verify the herbs are free of contaminants. I do not use herbs from endangered animals or that are harvested unethically. If these are issues that are important to you—and I hope they are—ask your practitioner. So, breathe a sigh of relief, Traditional Chinese Medicine is a safe practice.
In a time of technology-focused quick fixes, Traditional Chinese Medicine has managed to gain ground in its use around the world because it is an effective medicine. Scientific study requires a hypothesis that is tested through careful observation. TCM has thousands of years of close observational study of a vast number of individuals. The World Health Organization supports its use for over fifty health conditions. Gold standard double-blind research studies are hard to perform with holistic therapies, as this type of medicine needs to be customized to the unique needs of each individual. Large scale studies are expensive and placebo control is hard to do effectively for acupuncture. However, there are good studies available for a wide variety of health conditions, including pain, fertility, and digestive issues. There are studies to demonstrate that acupuncture boosts endorphins, improves circulation, and changes brain activity to effect whole body changes.
On to the second question, is it a good idea for the government to fund a TCM schooling program? This question is a lot harder for me to answer. I am glad that TCM is gaining widespread recognition, and for it to be taught in a university setting is a big leap toward broader acceptance. However, I appreciate the work that the good private TCM schools do to teach a full understanding of this intricate medical system. I worry that a publicly funded schooling system might end up teaching a “cookbook” style of TCM that states that “X” points or herbs are to be used for “Y” diseases and symptoms, just as the pharmaceutical world does. Anyone who has gone through the long years of study to be licensed, and the even greater hours of ongoing study throughout a career in TCM, knows that TCM diagnosis and treatment is complex. I would hope that a public schooling program will not lose the nuances of this ever evolving practice.
Pharmaceuticals, surgeries, MRIs, CT scans, and other advanced testing methods of the conventional care model are expensive. Traditional Chinese Medicine offers high skill, low technology options that can be integrated into the current system. In addition, holistic therapists teach the patient how to be an integral part of the wellness plan, offering guidance for lifestyle changes that contribute to long-term health benefits. This knowledge and these skills must be taught to students of TCM, so with the growing public demand for health practices and treatments that can be integrated into a conventional care plan, it’s wise for the government to be funding options. With better chronic illness prevention and disease management, we stand to save money in the long-term.
Zhang said that “there are many Chinese people who don’t even believe in TCM.” This debate is not about belief. It is about facts, and the fact is that TCM is safe, effective, and a lower cost alternative to many conventional medical options.