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Talking about Traditional Chinese Medicine with Chinese Doctors

A few months ago my friend told me that she had a small tumor. The doctor said that it was benign and she could either have it removed with an operation, or try to reduce its size using Chinese medicine. She opted for the Chinese medicine. 3x’s a day for months she drank the thick brown bitter liquid which was distilled from bear bile, birds nests and shark fins.

Now I try to keep an open mind about alternative medicine, and I think there are many things in Chinese medicine that have promise for medical applications, this however doesn’t seem to be one of those times. For four months my co-worker wasted her money on this concoction with no results. The sad thing is I know the hospital is selling this “treatment” partially because of the money they receive in exchange for pushing this product. We just hide behind the name of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) when there is no clinical proof that this is in any way an effective medical treatment.

These aren’t just my opinions either, many Chinese doctors who have been trained in “western” medicine worry about the effects of TCM too. One mentioned that often the patients are unaware of the side-effects of the traditional cures, and arrive in our hospital with liver or renal failure. Even the TCM doctor pointed to the fact that many people are graduating with only 3 months of study and calling themselves traditional healers, when really an apprenticeship and study takes almost as much time as becoming a doctor.

Of the 6 doctors I talked with, 3 of them said they would never take TCM treatments, 2 of them said they would take Chinese herbs for a cold or minor illness, and only one said she would take them for any serious disease (my friend who took the drugs for her tumor).

All of the doctors though agreed that they would like to see more regulations concerning TCM to protect the reputation of the practice. The TCM doctor said that he was very disappointed to see how commercialized it had become in the past decade, and how easily universities were handing out diplomas.

The TCM doctor was saying that he saw TCM’s role as accompanying Western medicine in a pain management role. For example, chemotherapy patients often struggle with side-effects which, according to patient reports, can be better controlled with acupuncture for pain and herbs for stomach problems.

Ultimately more clinical research will be useful in proving that there is value in TCM, protecting the integrity of the practice, and at the same time will help to protect Chinese patients from “cures” that delay them from getting proper treatment.