Health: Integrating traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine

by Adrienne Robertson

Every person in the world is made up differently. We smile differently, our eyes are different colours, we have different voices and nobody walks the same way, either. Most importantly, no two people have the exact same body chemistry or personality. This is why it is hard to pinpoint one type of medicine to suit everyone in the whole world.

Western and Eastern Medicine in Canada

Historically, different cultures have adapted their medicine based on what is available to them and their specific research. Over time, this has led to the development of different medical practices and systems.

In Canada, many people are accepting of various types of medicine that originate from different places around the world, probably since we are such a diverse nation. While some types of treatment are not considered “traditional” medicine in North America, many have been practiced for thousands of years in other countries and regions. In those places, on the other hand, Western medicine (vaccines, antibiotics and certain types of operations, for example) is not traditional, so it works both ways.

Non-traditional medicine in North America is often referred to as Complimentary or Alternative Medicine (CAM). One of the most common types of CAM practiced here in Canada is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine makes use of herbal medicine, acupuncture and massage to treat patients. The theories in TCM are based partly on Taoist and Buddhist philosophies, like the Yin-yang. TCM practitioners seek balance with their patients. They want to help their patients find balance and be able to relieve their own symptoms.

The Acupuncture Foundation of Canada Institute lists 130 members in Ontario, so TCM is not rare here. These members are acupuncturists, TCM doctors and naturopathic doctors, for example. Even though these types of TCM have been practiced in Asia for over 2,500 years, North Americans consider it “non-traditional” since it isn’t traditional to them. On the other hand, Western medicine is not traditional to Chinese people, either.

What is Western Medicine?

Western medicine is the type of treatment we see on television in medical shows. Doctors and nurses treat symptoms and diseases with drugs, radiation and surgeries. This system of medical care focuses on biology: what do the body’s chemicals and reactions show us? What can we use to fix that problem?

Most Western doctors believe this is the only way – or at least the best way – to treat all patients. “We always think we’re the best at everything, but that’s not the case,” says Dr. Daniel Hollenberg, who is a Canadian Health Services Research Foundation (CHSRF) postdoctoral research fellow at McMaster University’s Department of Sociology and Health, Aging and Society and at the University of Toronto in the Centre of International Health. Dr. Hollenberg visited Shanghai, China, in 2007 to examine how Chinese hospitals combine Western medicine into their daily medical treatments with traditional methods. Dr. Hollenberg found that many Chinese hospitals and clinics used a combination of TCM and Western medicine, like antibiotics and other drugs. In Canada, doctors tend to focus on one or the other – TCM or Western medicine, so anyone seeking help in both types of medicine must go see two separate practitioners.

How Does This Affect Me?

No matter what type of medical attention you seek, it is always important that your doctors know what else you have tried. If you are heading to an acupuncturist for help because you have headaches that a conventional doctor couldn’t fix, it is important to tell the acupuncturist what you have already tried. This is important because sometimes people might try herbal remedies from a naturopathic doctor, for example, but herbs are not always safe – sometimes they can conflict with other medications and be very dangerous to your health, just like mixing prescription drugs. It is also important to find the practice that is best for you. Perhaps you don’t feel comfortable with a conventional doctor because you are not used to their approaches, or vice versa. This is why there are different options – it is impossible to find one type of medicine that will work perfectly for every person in the world.

Dr. Xu Xu Wei calls medicine “a whole system of belief.” Dr. Wei was most recently Senior Resident Doctor, Neurology, and Attending Doctor and Administrator of Clinic Center of Senior TCM Specialists at the Shanghai Yue-yang IM Hospital of the Shanghai University of TCM, as well as Medical and Educational Director of the Cambodia Program, Centre for International Health, Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. “I think the need for healthcare is very broad,” says Dr. Wei. This is why many doctors are considering the option of Integrated Health Care (IHC) clinics.

Integrated Medicine

In an IHC clinic, doctors with different backgrounds (trained in Western Medicine in North America, trained in China, trained in Africa, for example) might come together in one clinic and all have a chance to interact with each patient. This way, the doctors and the patient can work together to find the best treatment for the patient’s problem. Dr. Wei says the goal of IM is to help and guide the body to fix and regulate its unbalanced situation by itself and to treat and cure the disease of the body from the need of the individual. He calls this patient-centred care.
The combination of TCM and Western medicine is known as Integrated Medicine (IM) – bringing the best of both approaches together. At an IHC clinic, all of the information from the team of diverse doctors would be kept in one place to avoid confusion or problems.

“There’s no ready solution, but we need to keep reaching out,” says Dr. Tim Cook, who works at Mount Sinai hospital where he supervises specialist trainees in the internal medicine clinic. Dr. Cook has a particular interest in Integrative Medicine, as well as tropical and travel medicine. Dr. Cook would like to see more acceptance and legitimacy for Integrated Medicine and sees TCM and Western Medicine blurring together and forming a new standard type of medicine accessible by everyone.

At the moment, Western medicine is more common in Canada and TCM remains “non-traditional.” In China, TCM is the primary type of medical treatment, but is equally sprinkled with Western drugs and practices, just as North Americans are starting to accept TCM bit by bit as well. In the future, we may have one type of medicine that has been influenced by both systems.

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