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Lisa Brook looks at the popularity of traditional Chinese medicine in the UK. The article first appeared in China in Focus magazine 1998.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is becoming an increasingly popular form of complementary medicine in the UK. It is estimated that one million adults in Britain have had acupuncture and that a million herbal prescriptions are written each year.

Even as little as ten years ago, TCM was still regarded as a 'fringe' treatment and you would have been hard pushed to find a practitioner outside of London.

In the meantime, complementary or alternative medicine has been booming, and Chinese medical centres are opening on high streets all around the country. The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM), the self-regulating body which represents practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine, has seen its membership grow by on average 30% per annum to 350 members at present.

The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC), which represents acupuncturists, now boasts over 1,900 members. The Council was formed in 1995 as an amalgamation of what were previously five separate organisations. A spokesperson for the BAcC said: “Regulation is coming. The BAcC is one of the main organisations talking to the government about regulation. It will be increasingly important for practitioners to become members of recognised associations like the BAcC in the future.”;

Dispensing traditional medicine
Dispensing traditional medicinces. © Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

Reasons behind the popularity

There are a number of reasons behind the growing popularity of TCM. Amongst the general public there is a growing disillusionment with Western medicine which, despite impressive results in the areas of surgery and many acute diseases, is often unable to deal adequately with many long-term, chronic ailments. Many patients are also reluctant to take strong medication, the long term side effects of which are not always known or understood.

In recent years, the popularity of TCM ha formed part of an increased interest in the cultural traditions of both China and the Far East as a whole. This has manifested itself in a proliferation of information on and practitioners of, for example, Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Feng Shui.

There are several colleges and institutions around the UK offering a wide variety of different course on TCM. Last year Middlesex University, in conjunction with Beijing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, began offering a five year, full-time degree in TCM. Elsewhere, healthcare professionals such as midwives and physiotherapists are able to do weekend courses on acupuncture, enabling them to use TCM as an 'extra' for their own patients. And almost all the big private health insurers such as BUPA and PPP now cover acupuncture, subject to a GP or consultant referral.

Research and acceptance

As yet, very little clinical research relating to TCM has taken place in the UK. There is a large amount of data in China, but it often isn't translated into English and many Western physicians don't regard it as 'scientific' from a Western medical point of view.

However, in the early 1990s, a paediatric dermatologist from London's Great Ormond Street Hospital and a dermatologist from the Royal Free Hospital instigated a randomised clinical trial into the treatment of atopic eczema in children with Chinese herbal medicine. The results were extremely favourable, and the product used for the trial, Zemaphyte, has recently received a licence in the USA.

As ever with research, one of the big problems is funding. In order to recoup their investment, most pharmaceutical companies are only interested in funding research which will leave them with a marketable product. Given that Chinese herbal medicine in its traditional form use compounds, i.e. prescriptions containing a number of different herbs, which are likely to be altered through the course of treatment, there is little scope for a standardised end-product and there are few companies who are interested in funding research in this area.

Discussing traditional medicine
Doctors of Yi and Han nationalities discuss herbal medicine in Chinyang County, Sichuan. 1977

Sino-European Clinics

Sino European Clinics Ltd. (SEC) was established in 1991. SEC is a joint venture between an English company, Anglo Chinese Development Corporation, and the government of Tianjin, the third largest city in China.

SEC set up its first Chinese medical centre in Bath in March 1991. Following a perceived demand for a similar service in the north west, SEC then opened a second centre in Manchester in November 1994. Earlier this year, a third centre was established in London within premises at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, an NHS Trust hospital which offers complementary medicine on the NHS.

SEC's doctors are all on secondment from teaching and research hospitals in Tianjin. Whilst in the UK, they treat a wide range of mainly chronic conditions with Chinese herbs, acupuncture and massage. Since March 1991, over 7,000 patients have been treated across all three centres.

SEC has always advocated the complementary nature of TCM and the organisation aims to provide a clinical framework for medical dialogue between the Western and traditional Chinese medical disciplines. Over the past few years, staff at all three centres have given talks and presentations to a variety of different groups, ranging from the general public and patient support groups to medical students, GPs and other healthcare professionals with an interest in TCM.

Aware of the vital importance of links with the TCM profession in China, earlier this year SEC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the State Administration of TCM - the government body which has direct administrative responsibility for TCM in China. It is hoped that the link will stimulate much needed dialogue between practitioners of TCM in China and Europe and that the SATCM will be able to advise UK-based organisations on issues relating to the practice of TCM.

All in all, SEC's experience of bringing Chinese doctors across to the UK to practise TCM has been a positive one. There is a huge demand for treatment from the British general public, and all sorts of new initiatives have sprung up in response to that demand. Back in September, Kew Gardens announced that they had received the first injection of capital they needed to set up a Chinese Herbal Authentication Centre. The centre aims to build up a comprehensive collection of medicinal Chinese herbs, against which imported herbs can be compared and tested for their authenticity. This is great news for users of TCM. Not only will it mean that the quality of herbal prescriptions is better vetted, but it will also contribute in part to ensuring that this 4,000 year old tradition has a future in the UK.

See Also:

Chinese Medicine
Chinese Food

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 1998 reprinted from SACU's China in Focus magazine Issue 5, 1998

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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