Ancient Healthcare for a Modern World
How To Reduce Medical Costs & Help Pay Off the National Debt: Ask the Chinese
In China there is profound treasure. Marco Polo brought back small portions of it. For centuries traders carried bits of it out along the silk road. Still today there is more treasure that we can borrow from China to enhance our world.
An aspect of China's tradition that the West has completely discounted is the health care system. Science has been so busy creating new technologies for treating disease that we in the West believe that health care and medicine are the same thing. While we in the West have a fantastic and very expensive system based on treating people after they are sick, China has a very inexpensive system of health care based on keeping people well:
In China, there is equal availability of traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine in hospitals and clinics.
In China, health self-reliance and self-care are prominent aspects of the national health care system.
In China, health care is free.
What would it be like if medical care based on natural healing methods-including acupuncture, massage, and herbal medicine, along with a strong tradition for self-care-were in place in the United States?
Collaboration between Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine
In China, Western medicine has been considered a form of alternative medicine for several hundred years. However, until 1919 AD, traditional Chinese medicine, which includes massage, herbal medicine, acupuncture, and self-care practices (Qigong), was the primary system of medicine. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some Western medical practices were available, mostly through missionaries. In 1919, when the last emperor stepped down, a number of Western medical schools were established in China, but it took until the 1990s for Western medicine to be fully integrated into the overall medical delivery system. Now, the alternative, Western medicine, has been almost completely integrated into China's mainstream system of medical practice, which is still strongly founded in their traditional system.
Today, there are few clinical situations in China where either traditional Chinese medicine or Western methods are delivered alone. For example, in many rural clinics, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and massage are easy and inexpensive to deliver, but Western medicine is difficult and expensive to provide. A few specialty institutions in large cities exclusively use technological Western diagnostic methods, and follow up with primarily Western intervention procedures. However, most institutions that focus on Western methods typically have acupuncture, massage, and herbal medicine also available to reduce pain, mediate the side effects of medications, and support patients with regulation of sleep, bowel disturbances, pain, anxiety, and nausea.
The extent to which the Chinese have absorbed "alternative medicine", that is, conventional Western medicine, into their system, is quite remarkable. It is apparent that the Chinese are proud of this collaborative, complementary, and comprehensive model. They have so completely embraced the alternatives to traditional Chinese medicine-surgical and drug based procedures-that all residents of Chinese cities have complete access to both.
One might wonder whether Chinese traditional physicians and Western physicians cooperate, and are they equally respected and equally compensated?
Everyone in China makes approximately the same monetary wage: physician, teacher, administrator, bus driver, clerk. The public holds equal respect for all physicians, whether Western or traditional. Patients may have a bias based on specific experiences, but both traditional medicine and Western medicine are equally available and paid for through government resources.
Physicians who make the professional choice to adopt either traditional Chinese medicine or Western medicine tend to have strong biases. However, many physicians have trained in both areas. These individuals are quick to express the benefits of both approaches, in spite of their final choice to practice primarily one or the other.
Dr. Zhu is a very bright, female physician who is the chief of the Oncology Department (called "head of tumor section" in China) at the Shanghai Ear, Nose & Throat Hospital. During an interview she spoke very much from the perspective of a Western trained physician. However, she was very interested in discussing her beneficial collaboration with the Shanghai branch of the Cancer Recovery Association, whose members practice traditional Qigong self-care exercises daily. In addition, her own special research interest is in the physiological mechanisms of acupuncture.
Dr. Liu, the chair of the Department of Acupuncture at the Zhejiang College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, was trained in Western medicine. During the cultural revolution, he was assigned to a project aimed at proving or disproving the traditional claims made about the benefits of Qigong self-care exercises. His research demonstrated that Qigong self-care was very beneficial. He decided to pursue the traditional approach to medicine, specializing in acupuncture and Qigong. Now, as the chair of the department and as chief editor of several books on current acupuncture research, Dr. Liu is very active in the merging of traditional Chinese and Western medicine.
The Chinese Model for Integrating Western medicine with Natural Healing Methods
At the Shanghai Traditional Medicine Hospital, the Chinese government's most current and comprehensive approach to medicine is revealed. It merges the best of traditional Chinese medicine and the best of Western medicine in a beautiful, new, 500-bed facility with an out-patient clinic that serves 1,000 patients per day. The chief administrator was asked, "Why do you combine systems of medicine in this way?" His answer was, "It is the most efficient and cost effective way to serve large numbers of people who have a broad variety of clinical needs."
This model, which is from the Shanghai Traditional Medicine Hospital, is typical of the integration of traditional Chinese Medicine and conventional Western medicine throughout China:
Step 1. All patients are diagnosed using traditional methods: pulse, tongue, and questioning. This requires no technological equipment and is therefore extremely inexpensive and immediate. This diagnostic strategy is sufficient in over 50% of cases, encompassing both in- and out-patient groups.
Step 2. Only when necessary, confirmation of diagnosis is provided through Western diagnostic methods. This combination is utilized in less than 50% of all cases. If needed, the latest technology is available: complete laboratory for all currently standard, body chemistry studies, X-ray, CT Scan (computer topography), and MRI (magnetic resonance imagery).
Step 3. In almost all cases, the first layer of treatment uses traditional Chinese natural healing modalities (acupuncture, massage, herbs) and self-care (Qigong) training. Even individuals who have taken step 2 into Western diagnostic methodologies generally receive traditional medical treatment.
Step 4. Western medical treatment is given generally when traditional treatment is not sufficient. Because of their recognized value in managing the side effects of drugs and radiological intervention and in mediating symptoms of insomnia, nausea, aches and pains, constipation, anxiety, and depression, the traditional modalities (acupuncture, massage, herbal formulas, and Qigong practice) are almost always added to Western medical treatment programs.
On the first floor of the hospital, between the emergency room and the x-ray/CT scan department, is an immense herbal pharmacy. The uplifting fragrance of hundreds of different kinds of health-giving plants is prevalent in the hallway just outside the x-ray department. The director of the hospital stated with pride, "We dispense over a thousand herbal formulas per day; frequently, that is as much as a ton of herbs." Is there a warm handshake, a true collaboration between Western and traditional medicine in China? The answer is an unqualified "Yes."
Self-Care in China
In China, the true definition of health care is to care for one's health. The rationale for self-care is that if citizens can do self-applied health enhancement methods (SAHEM), in the comfort of their own home for no cost, then health care is free. An ancient Chinese tradition encourages citizens and physicians to take great pride in healthy longevity. One of the most ancient and revered codes of traditional medicine states, "The superior physician teaches people to sustain their health." In the health crisis (of cost and quality) in the U.S., what could be more useful and cost effective than "free" health care? In China, this variety of free health care is being utilized by millions of people every day, and it is actively supported by the Chinese government.
Chinese self-care, called Qigong, combines careful regulation of breath, deep states of relaxation, specific regulation of bodily movement and posture, and, in certain forms, self-applied massage to generate a physiological state termed the Qigong state. This state is unique in its comparison to aerobics, jogging, and muscle-building, because of the simultaneous application of deep states of relaxation. Qigong requires no special equipment. While aerobics, jogging, and even walking require that the individual be relatively fit, people who are very sick and incapacitated can still practice Qigong.
There are many varieties of Qigong self-care practice. Some are very mild and aimed at the severely unwell. Taiji (t'ai chi), with which most Americans are familiar, is a moderate level of Qigong that is both curative and preventative. Certain types of wu shu and gung fu (martial and athletic forms) are very dynamic. However, when breath regulation and deep relaxation accompany the movements, the Qigong state can be attained. The Qigong state is characterized by a balanced coordination of the healing and health-sustaining resources in the body, including immune function, oxygen distribution, lymphatic flow, autonomic balance, and the ample and free-flowing activity of the body vitality, which the Chinese call Qi.
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