Integrated Medicine – ‘Walking On 2 Legs’

Complementary or conventional? Eastern or Western? When it comes to choosing what kind of treatment is appropriate for any given condition, in the UK we have to choose one kind or the other, and never the twain shall meet…

Enter ‘integrated medicine’ – an attempt to combine the strengths of both approaches, leading to more choice and better outcomes.

I was prompted to think about Integrated Medicine after reading an article on a South African website about a visit to Guilin Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine (you can read the article here)

It reminded me of my visits to hospitals in Zhejiang province in China a few years ago. In the Guilin hospital, like the others that I visited, traditional Chinese medicine works alongside modern Western medicine. Patients have some degree of choice and doctors have an understanding of both disciplines, allowing them to make educated treatment plans using whatever tools they think most appropriate for the case  in hand.

I spent some time during my visit with Dr Zhu, a stroke specialist. On his ward patients were treated with drugs and surgery where necessary, but also with daily acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Dr Zhu had also had great success using poultices of Chinese herbs placed on the body, and then wrapped up to hold them in place.  Rehabilitation included physiotherapy, occupational therapy and Qi Gong.

To me, this approach makes perfect sense. Chinese and Western medicine are clearly not the same, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Some people in my field are very much against Western medicine, but I don’t believe that that’s a very sensible view, as I always say, if I get run over by a bus I want to be taken to casualty, not to see my acupuncturist!

Western medicine saves lives. Medication and surgery are entirely appropriate in some cases, especially in immediate life-threatening situations. However, these are strong treatments with strong side-effects and are not always suitable, especially for chronic conditions. This is where Chinese medicine comes in.

In my clinic I see lots of people with chronic, non-life threatening conditions -asthma, eczema and other skin conditions, IBS, migraine, depression, tennis elbow and more. Often they have been to their GP and/or specialists and been offered very little by way of treatment, or the treatment that they have tried hasn’t worked or has unacceptable side-effects. They then turn to holistic medicine. The 5 branches of Chinese medicine offer an effective form of treatment in many of threse cases, and are also side-effect free.

Chinese medicine also has a place alongside conventional medicine. For instance, when used alongside IVF treatment it increases the chances of success by around 50%. It is also used to improve the quality of life and lessen the side effects of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy.

This integrated approach to treatment is what the Chinese call ‘walking on 2 legs’ – using the traditional and modern side by side. To me, this is the obvious way forward.

So I look forward to a distant future, where the choice is not Chinese or Western, but simply a question of what combination of treatments or therapies will be most effective or useful in this case? In this future, doctors of all kinds will be able to give their patients a choice of treatments of all kinds, and understand and explain the benefits, risks and side-effects of all options. In turn, patients will be able to make informed decisions about their own health.

This future is some way off, I fear, but we can all make a start at heading towards it… As a patient, research your options. Talk to both conventional and complementary therapists, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If your doctor doesn’t like the conventional approach, ask him or her if they have looked at recent evidence, and if so what did it show? If conventional treatments are offered, what are the chances of success, what are the risks, what are the possible side-effects, and what are the other options? Don’t be afraid to ask for evidence – any decent doctor will be happy to find out even if they don’t know off the top of their head.

Equally, ask the complementary therapist the same questions about their treatment for the condition. How does it work, what success have they had? Do they know of any research on the subject? Are there any side-effects, and so on.

The more serious or bothersome your condition or illness is, the more important these questions will be. And once you have the evidence, you can make an informed choice about what kind of treatment you prefer. You may even choose the integrated approach – to ‘walk on 2 legs’ and follow both conventional and complementary at the same time…