Better regulation of traditional Chinese medicine can help bring it up to international standards, to counter Western stigma
- While Western medicine has been gradually refined through rigorous testing, traditional Chinese medicine remains under-researched and poorly regulated
- With more funds for clinical research and stricter regulation, TCM’s full potential to protect lives can be unlocked
Almost three years into the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems a judgment has been reached on the value of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in fighting infections.
Unlike Western medicine, which has a one-size-fits-all approach, TCM is tailor-made for each patient. While the basic formula might be the same, doctors need to talk to the patient, understand their body type, existing health conditions, lifestyle and habits, and accordingly add or remove ingredients. Two patients might visit a doctor with similar conditions, yet end up with different remedies.
TCM sees the body as a network of systems working together to support our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. When treating a condition, each of these aspects is taken into account. Acupuncture, for instance, is used to connect multiple functioning systems in our bodies.
Western scepticism about TCM mainly stems from a difference in philosophical approaches. Western medicine favours a model in which a hypothesis is deduced from theory and observable empirical evidence is collected to test the hypothesis, while TCM involves using specific observations to make a general conclusion. While the former only tackles specific health issues, the latter aims to improve overall health.
Yet, in many cases, TCM is a lot more affordable for low-income groups with inadequate access to modern healthcare services. They are usually its staunchest supporters, and tend to regard it with a high degree of mysticism, without necessarily having informed knowledge.
This points to a fundamental difference between the two systems: Western medicine insists on proving something works, rather than assuming it does because it has always been used. By comparison, the less scrutinised regulatory environment of TCM leaves room for malpractice.
This has done much damage to TCM’s credibility. To rectify the situation, relevant institutions need to plough resources into large-scale clinical research. The memorandum of understanding recently signed by Malaysia and China for cooperation in developing traditional medicine could be a much-needed first step.
It is important to note that Western medicine started on a similar journey to TCM, having derived from folk remedies which, over the years, were purified and validated. Throughout the process, many traditional Western medicines were shown not to work; the ones that made it to trials represented a tiny fraction of the whole.
In this way, we might well end up with hundreds of TCM products that are both safe and effective. Alongside Hong Kong, Singapore, a world leader in healthcare, can play an important role in bringing TCM up to international standards.
Chee Yik-wai is a Malaysia-based intercultural specialist and the co-founder of Crowdsukan focusing on sport diplomacy for peace and development