When Western Medicine Fails: The Integration of Eastern Medicine Into Western Medical Practice

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Preventative versus diagnostic healthcare. Alternative versus conventional medicine. Holistic versus homeopathic. East versus west. It can be difficult to narrow down the differences between so many medical practices and approaches available to us today. But the general consensus seems to be that a holistic or preventative approach to health boasts health and wellness in the longterm. With overall mind-body-spirit wellness at the forefront of it’s principles. Whereas there are seemingly endless cases of diagnostic failures, overprescribed pill-popping patients, and the subsequent slew of adverse side-effects leading to chronic illness often associated with western medicine’s disease and symptom-based approach to healthcare.

With the medical landscape apparently changing and beginning to recognize alternative therapies like acupuncture, therapeutic massage, herbal remedies and mindfulness techniques, as well as other forms of what are traditionally considered to be eastern medical practices, you might also find yourself curious about the main differences in approach and just when western culture will make the big switch to incorporate eastern medicine’s more holistic and preventative approach to wellness.

As we learn more about the medicinal benefits of natural preventative health measures, we may begin to wonder why these practices are not more widely accepted and encouraged by medical doctors. But first, what is eastern medicine and what are the fundamental principles that differentiate it’s practices from those of western medicine?

The term ‘eastern medicine’ generally refers to Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM. TCM approaches health and medicine by encompassing how the human body interacts with all aspects of life and the environment. This includes the body’s reaction to seasons, weather, time of day, our diet and even emotional states. In TCM the key to health is the harmonious & balanced functioning of body, mind and spirit. It holds that the balance of health depends on the unobstructed flow of qi (prounounced chee) or what is known as “life energy” through the body, along pathways known as meridians. In Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners see disease as the result of disruptions in the circulation of qi.

Of the many techniques applied by TCM practitioners, and probably the most commonly known, is acupuncture. And the health benefits that this widely practiced procedure boasts are many! In TCM acupuncture has been used to treat addictions to cigarettes, heroin and even cocaine. Patients have seen relief from chronic low back pain, dental pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia and symptoms of osteoarthritis. It can assist in emotional pain syndromes such as post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as conditions ranging from emotional disorders (anxiety, depression) to digestive issues (nausea, vomiting, irritable bowel syndrome). Other TCM treatments include: herbal formulas,  moxibustion, Qigong (kee-gong), tuina (pronounced tway-na), and cupping.

After a thorough, albeit unorthodox assessment upon your initial visit with a TCM practitioner, a treatment plan will be customized to support the flow of qi in your unique and individual body. Diagnostic assessment typically follows their Four Pillars of Diagnosis: 1) Inspection (visual analysis of the face, skin features, and particularly the tongue); 2) Auscultation (analyzing the smell or odor of the body); 3) Palpation (wrist pulse, abdomen, and meridian points); and 4) Inquiry (analysis by asking questions about the patient’s past health and habits). A treatment plan may include dietary advice, acupuncture, a prescription of one or more herbal formulas or any combination of treatments. This followed by several repeat visits to address any adjustments needed in the treatment plan. It is the very opposite of the ‘quick fix’ that western medical science prescribes in the form of so many prescription medications.

Now, let us compare these TCM practices with common practices and beliefs held in western medicine. In western medicine pharmaceuticals rule the roost. Modern western medicine finds it’s focus on chasing and treating symptoms, and rarely addressing causes. The traditional approach in western medicine has always been to diagnose a particular disease or condition from known symptoms and then to treat it with medication, surgery or various procedures. Focusing on diagnosis and treatment works well for infectious diseases, however, it is not very useful for multi-factorial chronic diseases such as cancer or cardiovascular disease. This flawed approach sees doctors approaching the human body as a collection of individual parts (organs) rather than a system of organs working in concert to support the life of the human being. It is this focus on the function of the parts that overshadows the view of the body as a whole. Treatment often includes the prescription of standardized medication, typically administered by the patient independently, without the need for a return visit. Patients often are not expected or even encouraged to make lifestyle changes to support the treatment or  the medication prescribed. This is largely due to the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on western medical science and practices. The pharmaceutical industry makes trillions of dollars from the selling of drugs for ongoing diseases. These drugs may relieve symptoms, but rarely do they cure conditions.

Medical professionals however, seem to be recognizing the flaws of this current system of care for their patients and are implementing changes to better serve those under their care with preventative lifestyle options and practices. A shift has begun toward what is known as integrative medicine. An approach to health that mirrors, in some ways more than others, the TCM approach to lifelong health and wellness.

Integrative medicine is based upon a model of more complete health and wellness, as opposed to a model of disease. The integrative medicine model recognizes the critical role the practitioner-patient relationship plays in a patient’s overall healthcare experience. Favoring whenever possible, the use of low-tech, low-cost interventions. With integrative medicine western doctors are adopting the customized, personal care that comes with the whole-person perspective long held and practiced in eastern medicine. It combines modern medicine with established approaches from around the world.

We may yet be seeing a much needed shift in the perception of complete health and quality of treatment in the field of medical sciences. With much ground left to cover and a trillion dollar pharmaceutical industry to combat with, it is unlikely that such a shift will come quickly or easily. However obvious the need.

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