Brainstorm: Why does the Western world often overlook Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Neya Thanikachalam, Web Editor

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NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Hi everyone, and welcome back to another episode of Brainstorm, a podcast exploring all things health, science and tech-related. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Neya Thanikachalam. There are a lot of people schooled in Western thought who are skeptical of non-Western medical systems, so in this episode, we’re going to break down one of them. Today, we’ll be focusing on Traditional Chinese Medicine.

ALLISON MO: Traditional Chinese Medicine is basically a practice that has been used forever essentially, and it incorporates a lot of different aspects of medicine. The idea of Traditional Chinese Medicine is to look at the individual specifically and look at them holistically, so when you’re treating an individual, it is very much like, “I’m going to look at this individual who might have a certain disease, but we’re going to look at the cause inside their body and how we can treat that.”

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: That’s Weinberg junior Allison Mo. Last summer, she studied abroad in China and got to learn more about public health issues in China and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Mo’s Chinese-American, so she grew up learning about these traditional practices from her parents and grandparents.

ALLISON MO: I wanted to learn more about Traditional Chinese Medicine, especially through the lens of an English, American institution.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: The public health program was divided into two parts — the first one focused on public health systems, while the second was centered on Traditional Chinese Medicine. According to Weinberg Professor Licheng Gu, who is the program director for study abroad in China, learning about these topics is eye-opening.

LICHENG GU: The students, by all means, have opened their horizon. They see, “Oh, there’s an alternative to the Western medicine.” Our students not only learn theory, but actual practice — for example, when it comes to acupuncture.

ALISHA VOHRA: The majority of us in the class had our professor put a couple of needles in. And I’m not the biggest fan of needles, but I tried it.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: This is Weinberg junior Alisha Vohra. She studied abroad last summer with Mo.

ALISHA VOHRA: So the first time we interacted with an acupuncture needle, we would have it in our arm, so she would stick it in and you would feel a pulse throughout your whole arm. I actually felt it go down all the way through my leg. It’s the qi that flows in your body and you could feel it moving, and so it was a really surreal experience. It was an odd feeling and I don’t know how to replicate that in any other way.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Let’s back up a second. Vohra was just talking about qi, and for those who don’t know what that is, it’s basically a foundational part of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

ALLISON MO: It’s like blood, but it also flows in the universe and on Earth.

ALISHA VOHRA: That’s how I think of it, qi, as matter. You are matter, and you can also hold matter, you can consume matter. But I guess each person kind of has their own way. I don’t think there’s a universal term for qi, which is what makes it kind of unique and cool.

ALISHA VOHRA: If someone were to ask me to attempt to channel my qi and understand how I felt with the qi running through my arm with an acupuncture needle in, I can describe that, but describing it in theoretical terms is another, is another story.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Though it’s difficult to describe, qi is a fundamental part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In fact, according to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, an imbalance or incorrect flow of qi leads to illness or suffering. However, people from Western backgrounds often don’t think such reasoning is valid.

ALLISON MO: When you just think about Traditional Chinese Medicine from a biomedical point of view, a lot of people think, “Oh, it’s just mindful practices. It’s just the placebo effect. It doesn’t actually work. We don’t have any scientific proof that it works.”

LICHENG GU: Western people are not as open-minded as they should be. At least take the Chinese medicine as an alternative. Give it a chance.

Western country believes in hard science. Everything has to be in statistics, has to be scientifically proved. You have to have the data over there. Well, the Traditional Chinese Medicine, they have their shortcomings, and one of the shortcomings is they cannot quantify the elements, the chemicals that is in that herb, in that fruit of a tree. They cannot do that.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Traditional Chinese Medicine is considered an ethnomedical system, which means it’s rooted in practices and beliefs that emerge from cultural development. But that’s a very Western-centric view of belief systems, and it delegitimizes non-Western medical practices. In reality, the Western-centric biomedical approach is just as much an ethnomedical system as Traditional Chinese Medicine.
ALISHA VOHRA: Systems are based in culture and at the end of the day, we need to remember that biomedicine is coming from a Western perspective, so evaluating other traditional medicines through that lens isn’t always the most effective or the most reliable.

ALLISON MO: In order to take away the stigma of traditional medicines, you have to completely reinvent how people think about medicine. Because biomedicine is viewed as such a standard, people don’t think about it as an ethnomedical system and they just think that this is how we have to evaluate everything.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: During the program, students also spent time in a class learning about the intersection of Western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine. But theory and practice are very different.

ALISHA VOHRA: They’re at least trying to implement a combination system where both are working together. And I think utilizing more practices from both in healing techniques is a good way to kind of reduce that stigma and show all that traditional medicines have to offer. I think that’s a really good first step.

LICHENG GU: I hope our public health professionals and doctors, when they treat patients in the future, they not only see one-sided view — they can be more open-minded and see more alternatives for their patients.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Even though Western medicine has played an important role in understanding health and science, it’s important to remember that it’s just one approach to medical practices. That’s it for this week. This is Brainstorm, and we’ll see you in the next episode.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: This episode was reported and produced by me, Neya Thanikachalam. It was edited by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

Twitter: @neyachalam

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