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Integrate TCM and Western medicine to best benefit patients

An acupuncture session at Eu Yan Seng TCM Wellness clinic.
An acupuncture session at Eu Yan Seng TCM Wellness clinic. PHOTO: EU YAN SANG

I thank Dr Lee Wei Ling for encouraging more research into traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and for recognising that, like all medicine, not all TCM treatments are effective ("World can gain from more TCM research"; Jan 17).

There is an enormous amount of scientific research that has already gone into TCM.

Nobel laureate Tu Youyou's work was recognised because it produced an important Western drug from Chinese herbal sources. It also showed that TCM research institutions are capable of doing good-quality scientific work.

As a TCM physician who has received degrees in both biomedical sciences and TCM, I am able to see medicine from both perspectives, an advantage that people with pure biomedical training may not have.

TCM adopts an approach based on the patient's external manifestations, which compel a holistic view based on inferences regarding imbalances in the body.

In contrast, Western medicine (biomedicine) focuses on diagnostic tests at the microscopic level.

This results in biomedicine tending to be disease-centric, while TCM tends to be patient- centric, directing attention to the overall condition of the patient.

To borrow a term from Dr Lee, it is "cultural chauvinism" for either to make an exclusive claim to scientific truth or therapeutic efficacy.

Let us not cite anecdotes of failed TCM treatments to discredit TCM as a whole. In every trade, there are black sheep.

There are numerous accounts and clinical trials that show the successful outcomes of TCM. We should not deny these just because of a few black sheep.

I am heartened by doctors who encourage TCM research.

However, a distinction has to be made between testing TCM theory and its therapies on the one hand, and clinical trials conducted on herbs for drug discovery purposes on the other.

Searching for active ingredients in herbs is just scraping the surface of what TCM can offer.

TCM is based on empirical knowledge gained from detailed case studies accumulated over centuries. This is now being supplemented with evidence-based medicine protocols.

There is a vast amount of information in TCM that we can integrate with current biomedical knowledge, in order to best benefit humankind. We should pick out the things that are useful in TCM, use them and pass them on to future generations. This requires an open mind among both TCM and biomedical physicians.

Let us all work towards adopting a more positive scientific attitude towards a system of health and healing that continues to play an important role in Singapore healthcare.

Melissa Ong Zhi Lin (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Integrate TCM and Western medicine to best benefit patients'. Subscribe