Both Western and traditional Chinese medicine have its merits and shortcomings. When used wisely together, an integrated medicine expert reveals that they make a stronger army against their common enemy.
The SARS epidemic in 2003 is the best known example of the manifold beauties brought by marrying western with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM): Herbal formulas given to patients together with steroids and breathing support proved to boost patient’s immune system and reduce the use of western drugs, resulting in a higher chance of survival, quicker recovery and fewer complications.
A decade on, the two branches of medicine in Hong Kong – which have historically evolved separately – have finally taken the first steps into integration through a pilot scheme for cancer, chronic pain and stroke patients at three public hospitals, with western as the major treatment and TCM playing the supportive role. Last year, the Chinese University of Hong Kong has also established the Institute of Integrative Medicine.
This beneficial integration is taking place at the Pier 3 Medical Centre – which is under one of the city’s leading private medical service provider GenRx – with a one-stop, evidence-based and synergistic model.
One of the project proponents Ben Hung, an integrated medicine expert and registered TCM practitioner at GenRx, firmly believes “it’s important to establish a platform where Chinese and western medicine can work in tandem to accurately assess the risks, identify the best treatment and provide greatest security for the good of our patients.”
This integrated system, according to Hung, is particularly valuable when it comes to diagnosing and treating diseases with potential risks; illnesses that hits multiple organs and functional systems such as diabetes; or when either branch of medicine doesn’t perform well alone as with certain cases of depression and skin diseases.
Depending on the need and preference of patients, doctors at the centre will with western medicine, TCM or a combination. Patient’s medical records will be shared among the centre’s doctors so their conditions are constantly monitored and evaluated.
Hung said unlike in the public system in which TCM practitioners don’t have access to patients’ medical records, integrated medicine promotes the exchange of the information; frequent communication, appreciation and understanding between both branches of medicine; and the use of the same medical language.
“In integrated medicine, all doctors have to [know each others’ discipline well] so they could work out the best options for the patient,” says Hung.
“And to bridge the gap between the two branches of medicine, doctors should speak a common language so they will be on the same page. For example, western doctors wouldn’t be familiar with the implications of qi deficiency, thus TCM practitioners would instead note down of the level of blood sugar.”
The key of integrated medicine is to take the best from both medical worlds so they could complement each other and iron out each others’ weaknesses.
Although TCM has a longer history than western medicine, Hung says it falls behind in its diagnostic power since it relies on four classic diagnostic techniques of observing, smelling, inquiring and pulse reading. By harnessing western medicine, known for its rigorous clinical assessment and advanced equipment, illnesses could be identified more accurately and quickly.
For example, Hung says computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging and biopsy can identify the location, size, quantity and stage of cancerous tumours when TCM cannot; an electrocardiogram can detect atrial fibrillation, but TCM cannot.
In contrary, western medicine, which looks for specific causes of diseases and targets treatment at the particular body components, could cause harmful side effects. And this is when TCM’s holistic approach comes in for good. Hung says that TCM, believing that all our organs and systems are interconnected, when used with western treatment, can restore the balance of the whole body and reduce complications.
For example, Hung explains that oral medications and insulin can help the diabetic to keep their blood glucose in check, but it could impair the function of the liver and kidney and cause weight gain. “If certain herbal fixes are taken, it could alleviate the side effects.”
Fusing the two medical worlds has more to offer than health benefits; it also eases patients’ financial burden. Hung explains that in short term, patients might have to fork out more to visit doctors from both branches, but in the long run, with better diagnosis and more effective treatment, they would recover more speedily and enjoy better quality of life.
With a huge demand for clinically proven and safe methods to heal the mind, body and spirit, integrated medicine is the way to go – the movement is not limited to Hong Kong, but also gaining ground worldwide such as in Britain and the US.
Ben Hung’s profile
Hung obtained his integrated medicine practitioner qualification and researched on integrated treatments for diabetes at Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. When he moved to Hong Kong in 2006, he continued to study diabetics at Chinese University, and later obtained a PhD in integrated treatment for depression at the University of Hong Kong. He also practiced at one of the Hospital Authority’s TCM clinics for four years.
He specialises in TCM treatment for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid disorder, depression, insomnia and etc.