I’ve now had this conversation with a couple of different TCM doctors: traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) will need to be significantly updated and modernized before it can be on-par with allopathic medicine, as opposed to being relegated to the realm of CAM (complementary and alternative) treatments.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge supporter and advocate of Chinese medicine.  It gets results.  I’ve gotten results.  My family has benefited. Chinese medicine has success with inexplicable and otherwise incurable conditions.  It is used by cancer patients, by sufferers of chronic diseases, and especially for pain.  Chinese medicine is particularly noted for helping people with sub-health (sub-optimal health).

But somehow, despite results, Western medicine isn’t impressed. They want scientific proof. They want research studies. They want medical explanations. In this, I don’t disagree (although I do believe results matter more).

So here’s where I think the modernization of Chinese medicine needs to happen:

  1. Define and explain abstruse foreign terms: Yin, Yang, Qi, Essence, Meridians, Triple Energizer (San Jiao), no self-respecting allopathic doctor would use that language with patients.  Talking about ‘Qi’ still gets a laugh even among American expats in China; its just so nebulous a concept that people can’t understand. These words were fine for ancient China, but with an understanding of modern anatomy and specific names for processes, fluids, and energies, we should be better at defining and explaining TCM concepts in modern medical terms. (I have a few thoughts on what correlates to what, which I may post in the future, but) this is best written and propagated by someone with in-depth knowledge of both Western and Chinese medicine.
  2. Admit weaknesses and shortcomings of TCM: Many advocates of TCM think that because of its 3000+ year history and its contribution to making the Chinese people the longest surviving civilization that TCM is just good enough as is.  This is one thing that frustrates me with some of my TCM teachers: they make TCM sound like the Holy Grail that can cure any ailment.  Obviously, this is not true. There’s a lot of issues TCM can’t help (such as gallstones). I would also like more TCM practitioners and researches from inside China honestly address (i) whether the specific acu-point is as critical as they make it seem, (ii) whether the needle insertion is critical or it can be simulated, (iii) how important/useful/relevant cupping and guasha (scraping) are.
  3. Do research to explain how and why it works: What are the chemical components in the herbs that make them effective? Or is it the processing methods? Where do the synergistic effects come from? Do whole plants really work better than capsule or tablet forms? Why? How do meridians work? How do we know? What makes acupuncture so effective? Explain why pulse diagnosis works–why do the kidneys, heart, stomach, and lungs show up on those parts of the wrist.
  4. Adjust TCM home remedies to fit modern lifestyles: So much of TCM is about maintaining good health and improving sub-health, which is largely done outside of the clinic, but it just doesn’t accommodate our current lifestyles. TCM has teas and brews, advice for adjusting to the seasons and enjoying life, at home cures and poultices, soups and medicinal foods, but all of that takes time people don’t have and ingredients people can’t buy. Who’s going to stay home and cook chicken soup with ginseng and gouji berries for 6 hours? Who’s going to wash and soak and wash and soak and boil and drain and boil and drain herbs for herbal medicine? I need ease, convenience, time-saving, applicable ways to fit Chinese medicine into my on-the-go lifestyle.

I’m not the only one seeing the need for this modernization, increasingly practitioners of TCM are recognizing it as well,

It is not necessarily a bad thing that TCM clinics are offering more treatments from modern medicine, according to You Weibin, a Shanghai-based qualified TCM practitioner who has worked in China and Canada.

It could, he said, help traditional methods “make a breakthrough” in terms of developing a more rigorous theoretical basis. He conceded that currently the knowledge that underpins TCM “needs much more refinement” and is often inconsistent with, or untestable under, the principles of scientific medicine. (thenational.ae, h/t @ChineseMedicine -Yawei)

As explained in the WSJ, groups are trying: the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences is working with the University of Sydney (Australia) to figure out which herbs works as prescribed.

The researchers use algorithms to try to discover what herbs and combinations of herbs are most effective in treating various ailments. […]

The strength of traditional Chinese medicine appears to be in treating chronic illnesses, says Mr. Poon. So the research initially focused on the 120 herbs and 460 different prescriptions used by traditional-medicine specialists in China to treat insomnia. So far the program has found three herbs that appear important for effective insomnia treatments and are consistent with traditional-medicine theory as spelled out in Chinese literature on the subject, he says.

I believe Chinese medicine will go through quite a bit of modernization to improve its relevance and accessibility in the next 10-20 years and in doing so will become much more mainstream and well-regarded in medical circles. And we can again focus on results.