Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Tuesday 18 June 2013

On Chinese Medicine...in China

Heilongjiang University of TCM
I have just spent two months studying at the Heilongjiang University of Chinese Medicine in the city of Harbin, up in the North Eastern corner of China. It all happened out of the blue, I heard about a scholarship to do clinical practice in China, applied for it, and forgot about it. Next thing, I was trying to work out if I could go to China for the whole 6 months or not! To be perfectly honest, apart from Chinese Medicine, I had never felt a great urge to go to China. What with Tibet, environmental issues, the largest population in the world, and the lack of freedom of speech, and then there was the language. As Chinese Medicine was literally taking me to China, I took off with little knowledge of what China really is like and, being aware of my ignorance in this respect, no expectations as to what I was going to find. I have to say, I was mostly pleasantly surprised by what I found there: the people, the food (apart from MSG!), the history, and seeing Chinese medicine alive and kicking!

Harbin itself was not the most exciting place but being in a university dedicated to the study of Chinese Medicine with its own bustling university hospital, and surrounded by people who did not think that what I do is out of the ordinary was exciting enough. To top it all up, my interest in neurological conditions was well catered for as Harbin turned out to be a centre for the research into the use of Acupuncture and scalp acupuncture for the treatment of neurological conditions. 

Outpatient neurology department
The University hospital outpatient unit consisted of hundreds of rooms laid out over several floors, dedicated to different medical disciplines - dermatology, neurology, gynaecology and so on. Here, highly experienced TCM doctors of each speciality would see their patients at the same time as teaching their university students. The more experienced the doctor, the more patients there would be in front of his or her door, and the more students there would be crowding the room.  

I certainly felt privileged receiving information that had been passed down several generations of doctors, and often refined by our doctors’ 20 or 30 years of clinical practice. 

Despite the big clusters of people outside, and often inside, the rooms; most doctors took the necessary time to get all the relevant information off each patient. Many patients were sent off for clinical tests - which they had to pay for - before the doctor decided on the necessary treatment. Within half an hour, they would come back with their test results, scan or x ray, and the doctor would proceed to write their herbal prescription or administer acupuncture. 

Acupuncture&rehabilitation ward
The “big” university hospital, which was outside the campus, was even more exciting. Whole wards of inpatients receiving daily acupuncture and herbal formulations, often in combination with conventional drugs, seemed almost surreal to the Western students. In the neurology ward, dozens of acute-stage  patients, most of whom were there due to recent strokes, welcomed us as the main doctor did his rounds sticking needles all over their scalps and the affected limbs before leaving them for the students to look after as he moved on to the next patient. Patients received twice-daily acupuncture treatments, herbs, massage and, when appropriate, also exercise sessions. On another floor, the “rehabilitation” unit consisted of a large and light room filled with exercise devices and couches bustling with people working on the machines or receiving physiotherapy and massage, often with their scalps covered in acupuncture needles. 

Needless to say, not everything was a bed of roses: hygiene for a start was hugely disregarded in the hospitals, as was privacy, although the latter was shocking to us mostly for cultural reasons. In China many people still share large dormitories and communal showers so talking about symptoms -even embarrassing ones- in front of people or exposing body parts is not as difficult as it is to us. There was also talk of the tendency of some doctors to prescribe tests and extra medication or herbs to increase their own profit. This is a direct result of “capitalism” as these days the basic salary of a TCM doctor is nowhere near that of a Western one within China itself. However, although I did see some over-prescribing of herbs and antibiotic over-use, I mostly saw dedicated and often overworked practitioners who gave their whole attention to each patient and who seemed to endeavour to make him or her feel better.

East&West meet shopping
China is going through very rapid changes in its economy, 
infrastructure, and values and it is quite tangible that in many ways this is destabilising its people and culture. Traditional ways of living and thinking are fast being lost and where in the past the traditional wisdom concerning food, exercise and living seasonally kept people strong into a ripe old age; the increased exposure to Western ways paired with the growing consumer power, economic pressures, and an eagerness to enjoy the joys of capitalism are also bringing increasing amounts of Western diseases such as obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, infertility etc. 

As far as I saw, these conditions were treated with a combination of Western drugs and Chinese herbal medicine and/or acupuncture. This is a direct result not only of the real need to complement a health care system that would not be able to cater for the medical needs of such massive population with Western drugs alone, but of the awareness based on the country’s experience that Western medicine is most successful at treating acute, life threatening conditions, and Chinese medicine is at its best treating chronic, slow changing illness. Nevertheless, new generations may be less inclined to go for the “traditional” ways and who knows if in the next few decades Chinese medicine will continue being as popular in China as it seems now.

When I asked people if they thought that TCM was in peril of dying out, I got promptly replied “never, because TCM works for things that Western medicine can’t treat”. I was given as an example the bird flu outbreaks in China where only Chinese herbs have seemed to provide some hope of survival to sufferers. There have been many reports of this but you never know who to believe. What I do know though, is that I saw people who despite their very severe diagnoses and conditions - cancer, liver cirrhosis, hepatitis B, hemiplegia, cerebral palsy, etc - seemed to manage to have a relatively normal life thanks to the successful use of conventional and Chinese medicine together. That this alone will be enough to make a traditional medicine survive the game of investment and profit, or how intact might it survive, remains to be seen. We cannot begrudge the Chinese for wanting the comforts that we ourselves have always had. We can only thank them for developing such complete medical system and hope that the seeds of Chinese medicine planted all over the world and the strength of its ancient and adaptable theory will help it carry on thriving for the benefit of all.

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