The university where traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine meet
I did a lot of university tours. This had a lot in common with a trip to any university with a medical school.
The tour took me to a hospital, where students hone their skills. There was a waiting room with several uncomfortably looking patients waiting to be seen, and in one room, two rows of beds – about 20 in total – with curtains drawn for more. discretion.
What was slightly different, however, was that all of the patients in that particular ward received the same treatment: acupuncture. I was in the Traditional Chinese Medicine Department of the China Medical University Hospital in Taichung, Taiwan.
The teaching of traditional Chinese medicine in universities is not without controversy, especially in the West. The discipline is rejected by many as pseudoscience. It is often grouped together with homeopathy, Ayurvedic medicine, and Naad yoga.
These forms of complementary and alternative medicine have no place in academia, critics say, because much of what they advise is not scientifically proven; it is at best ineffective, and at worst very dangerous.
I am inclined to agree. But this blog is not about my perspective or that of others on teaching traditional Chinese medicine. Rather, it aims to provide an overview of a university where Western and traditional medicine are taught side by side.
At CMU, students can earn either a Western Medicine degree (seven years) or a Traditional Chinese Medicine degree (also seven years). At the beginning, they can take modules on each side before specializing. A small group – about 80 each year – study both fields and study for eight years.
About 50 percent of traditional Chinese medicine doctors in Taiwan have graduated from college, we are told upon leaving the acupuncture department.
At Lifu Museum of Chinese Medicine, we are guided by a second year student studying for a Traditional Chinese Medicine degree. She introduces us to some of the key texts and the most influential figures in the discipline. There are Huangdi Neijing, a text more than 2000 years old, which details (among other things) the functioning of the organs and the way in which we must adapt our way of life according to the seasons. It is still taught today, she said.
We hear about Bian Que, a doctor who, according to legend, “could see through his body with his eyes on x-rays.” And Zhang Zhongjing, who wrote the bible on how to treat a large number of illnesses and ailments, and which students at work today – some 2,000 years later – have yet to memorize.
I take this opportunity to ask our guide what she would say to those critics who believe that such historical practices have no place in university education – especially those who also offer more “scientific” medical courses. .
His answer is considered and given with conviction. Such teachings and practices, she says, improve patients. Not only in her experience – although she speaks from her personal perspective – but in the experience of countless people over thousands of years.
In some cases, “we may not understand why” certain practices seem to benefit patients, she says, but we need to “continue our research” to find out.
Earlier in the tour, the student referred to Tu Youyou, the first Chinese to win a Nobel Prize for a scientific discipline for research conducted in China. She was instrumental in the development of a drug that treats malaria and won the Medicine Award in 2015.
The inspiration for her work was traditional Chinese medicine – a centuries-old text led her to a plant, from which she extracted the antimalarial substance (forgive my oversimplification of this process).
At the time, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the award was the embodiment of “the enormous contribution of traditional Chinese medicine to human health.” After my question, another tour member (a senior executive from another Taiwanese university) reminds me of this story.
Again, critics would say that the work involved in the extraction and successful development of the antimalarial substance had little to do with traditional Chinese medicine. But here it certainly serves as an example where the research of theories in historical texts has indeed led to a very welcome scientific discovery.
The museum, with its bronze statue of acupuncture points and its model of a traditional Chinese pharmacy (with hundreds of wooden boxes and porcelain jars containing all kinds of treatments), seems a long way from the wing. Western Medical Center of CMU, which we also visit.
We pass the huge brutalist cancer center overlooking the city of Taichung and housing the oncology department of the university hospital; and the Trauma Center, with a helipad, where the most urgent cases are treated.
Also in the West Hospital, there is the “smart ward”, where patients are given a computer tablet that allows them to access their files, schedule appointments, summon a nurse, or even open and close the curtains and adjust the lighting. Beds can also alert staff if a patient who is supposed to be bedridden has tried to get up.
It was this juxtaposition of old and new that was most striking about the tour. CMU says its mission is to become a world leader in Western and Chinese medicine. This means it must offer students access to some of the world’s most revolutionary medical technologies and practices, while championing some of the oldest.
I am aware that this is not a unique position. Many universities around the world offer courses, or full courses, in both Western and Complementary Medicine (including Chinese Medicine). However, they do so amid fierce criticism from some – and without a doubt, CMU is no stranger to such discussions.
There are others, however, who are less dismissive. The day I was in the traditional Chinese medicine ward, two international doctors – one from France and one from Russia – were visiting the hospital to find out more. The guide says it’s a regular occurrence – and she clearly believes there’s a lot Western medicine can learn from traditional Chinese practices.
Chris Parr is a digital editor and communities at Times Higher Education.