Ancient healing gets Swiss stamp of approval

Mrs Carla Fuhlrott, 45, performing traditional Chinese cupping on a patient in Zurich. Eight patients see her each day, seeking treatments mostly for chronic ailments.
Mrs Carla Fuhlrott, 45, performing traditional Chinese cupping on a patient in Zurich. Eight patients see her each day, seeking treatments mostly for chronic ailments.PHOTO: KASH CHEONG

Singapore-born Carla Fuhlrott believes in the healing power of alternative medicine, which in her case is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

In her pristine clinic 20 minutes from downtown Zurich, the TCM practitioner sees about eight patients a day who turn up to seek relief for ailments from allergies to insomnia and infertility.

She prescribes crushed cicada shells and powdered earthworms to ease itchy skin or does cupping to improve blood flow, which in turn promotes healing.

  • Popular in Switzerland

  • TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE (TCM)

    This 2,000-year-old art relies on knowledge of yin and yang, qi and meridians. Acupuncture, massage or herbal therapy is used to adjust disharmony in the body. Some practitioners in Switzerland hail from China. A one-hour acupuncture session can start at 120 Swiss francs (S$170).

    HOMEOPATHY

    Started by German physician Samuel Hahnemann in 1796, this system of natural medicine uses dilutions of chemicals and natural substances to cure disease. For instance, a dilution of duck liver is used for colds. Homeopathy is among the most popular forms of alternative medicine in Switzerland.

    TRADITIONAL EUROPEAN NATUROPATHY (TEN)

    The system originated in ancient Greece. Modern TEN is based on folk medicine, which uses herbs. Some practitioners use kinesiology, the science of body movement, to see which areas to treat. For instance, a tight chest muscle could be tied to low self-esteem.

    AYURVEDA

    The ancient Indian art came to Switzerland in the 1980s. It holds that one's doshas - forces linked to natural elements - must be balanced for health. Treatments for chronic issues like indigestion include dietary changes and herbal remedies.

    Kash Cheong

In Switzerland, better known for holey cheese, ski resorts and pharma giants like Novartis and Roche, about 3,000 practitioners of alternative medicine like Mrs Fuhlrott have found a healthy demand for their services.

"For a long time, people have been focusing on Western medicine, but now they are finding out it is not the cure for everything. They are looking for gentler treatments to complement Western medicine, often with fewer side-effects," said Mrs Fuhlrott, 45, whose father is Italian and her mother, a Chinese Singaporean. The family left Singapore when she was much younger.

Her interest in TCM began when she was learning foot reflexology as a hobby in a Swiss natural medicine school about 14 years ago.

"I was fascinated by this ancient system of healing. It's my cup of tea," she told The Straits Times.

She also learnt acupuncture and herbology and then quit her marketing job eight years ago to practise full-time. Today, she is also head of the Swiss Professional Organisation for Traditional Chinese Medicine (SBO-TCM).

As a nod to alternative medicine practitioners, Switzerland now has its own nationally-recognised advanced diploma for natural medicine. The advanced diploma puts homeopathy, TCM, ayurveda and traditional European naturopathy (TEN) practitioners on a par with respected vocations like skilled carpenters and lab technicians in Switzerland who have such qualifications.

"Before this, only private organisations like the SBO-TCM gave out certifications. Patients, insurers and cantons could use this as a quality marker," said Mr Stefan Maegli, a representative from the Swiss Organisation for Alternative Medicine (ODA-AM), an umbrella organisation which pushed for the federal certification.

"But this advanced diploma is one level above. It is endorsed by the government. It provides the alternative medicine profession with greater recognition," he added.

Switzerland's basic healthcare insurance covers a set of five therapies, including acupuncture, provided they are done by medical doctors. Many Swiss also buy private supplementary insurance that covers more alternative therapies  done by experienced professionals.

The advanced diploma is particularly important for some 300 practitioners of ayurveda, which is covered by fewer insurers compared to homeopathy and TCM, which are more popular.

"The advanced diploma raises the possibility of more insurers coming on board," said Mr Franz Rutz, president of the Swiss Professional Association of Ayurveda Medical Practitioners and Therapists.

"This will give greater financial security to ayurveda practitioners."

While a more extensive curriculum involving more than 4,000 hours of education is being put in place for new learners of natural medicine, about 70 practitioners will sit the very first advanced diploma test next month.

The candidates, who must have at least five years' experience, will be tested on their knowledge of diagnosis and treatment and, also, for some, practical skills.

"It is not an easy exam," said Mr Maegli of ODA-AM, which is involved in helping to conduct the test.

TCM practitioner Regula Krahenbuhl, 38, is already hitting the books.

She hopes that the federal diploma will pave the way for a nation-wide standard in practising alternative medicine. Currently, Switzerland's 26 cantons have different laws for licensing alternative medicine practitioners.

"If a practitioner has to move to another canton, say for family reasons, you have to study the canton's laws again. It is very troublesome," said the former primary school teacher, who was so enthused by TCM's holistic way of healing that she left her job a decade ago to practise it.

As for Mrs Johanna Keller-De Wild, 44, a TEN practitioner, getting the diploma would be a long-awaited affirmation of her skills.

When she started learning TEN 17 years ago, her grandfather, a traditional Western doctor, disapproved of it. Her husband thought it was merely a hobby.

But their attitudes have changed since she managed to show that what she did was financially viable.

"Alternative medicine is a profession and getting this diploma would prove the quality of my practice," she said.

Elsewhere in the world, Australia offers a nationally-recognised diploma in naturopathy and Singapore's Nanyang Technological University has a Bachelor's double degree programme in TCM and biomedical sciences. TCM degrees from Beijing University and Nanjing University remain keenly sought after.

Swiss patients say that having a practitioner with an advanced diploma would be icing on the cake.

"I will know that I am in very good hands," said Ms Anne Bessler, 36, who goes for monthly TCM sessions for her back pain.

Still, Ms Bessler is aware of the limitations of natural medicine.

"If my practitioner insists that I stop taking medicine from my GP, I would think twice," she said.

"It's best if Western medicine and natural therapies work hand in hand. I want to get the best of both worlds."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'Ancient healing gets Swiss stamp of approval'. Print Edition | Subscribe