Rethinking disease with systems medicine

Image: Hartwig HKD/h.koppdelaney via Flickr

There’s an insightful and ironic quote about medicine from an unknown author which goes like this:

A Short History of Medicine.

2000 B.C.  “Here, eat this root.”

1000 B.C.  “That root is heathen, say this prayer.”

1850 A.D.  “That prayer is superstition, drink this potion.”

1940 A.D.  “That potion is snake oil, swallow this pill.”

1985 A.D.  “That pill is ineffective, take this antibiotic.”

2000 A.D.  “That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root.”

It got a few chuckles out of me but it does show you how healthcare and medicine have come full-circle and we are slowly but surely understanding the importance of (w)holistic medicine.

As an acupuncturist, it comes with the territory that I don’t see a symptom as an isolated case separate from the rest of the body and the person. Why does this person have insomnia? Is it because of a back pain or frequent urination keeping them awake at night? Or is it because of stress at work so the overthinking makes it hard for them to fall asleep? Rarely does a health problem arise without other accompanying symptoms. They may seem unrelated but in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) these are all clues just waiting to be noticed by the detective.

So it was with great delight that I saw a short video by Dr. Mark Hyman where he talks about “systems medicine”. Hardly revolutionary in the TCM and acupuncture world, his idea is that “historically we just try to find a drug for the bug or a pill for the ill, instead of really finding out how to treat the body as a system.”

Dr Hyman goes on to say:

“We’re moving from the idea that diseases are things, like bacteria that need to be treated with a drug, like an antibiotic, which was a wonderful paradigm for 20th century illness, but it’s not a good paradigm for chronic lifestyle-driven diseases. We’re looking to choose drugs over lifestyle to treat diseases that are really lifestyle-driven illnesses… The future of medicine is systems medicine. It’s predictive, preventative, it’s participatory and it’s personalised.”

It certainly sounds very familiar to TCM theory, doesn’t it?

Click here to watch the full video.

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China, unsurprisingly as the name suggests, is the birthplace of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It has been used for thousands of years there, and is now practiced side by side with conventional western medicine. Despite its long legacy, TCM was in decline at the beginning of the 20th century and it wasn’t until the Cultural Revolution when TCM was rediscovered and regained its popularity (due to its relative low cost compared with western medicine). TCM in the West on the other hand, has a much shorter history, and has not been in the mainstream’s conscience until quite recently (in the grand scheme of things). Is there a perception then, that TCM practitioners in China are better equipped at dealing and treating patients than their western colleagues?

Logically, this should be true. China is still the only place that has truly integrated TCM and western medicine. TCM hospitals there abound with the hustle and bustle of doctors, herbalists and patients. The sheer number of patients mean that the likelihood of seeing varied types of illnesses treatable with TCM must be higher. Also the very idea that the principles of TCM (diet, lifestyle, various forms of exercise like taichi) are embedded in the Chinese society should make it a much easier for TCM to be practiced and bettered in China.

However, it could just be possible that practitioners in the west might have their own advantages. Most TCM practices here are private and small. There are very few actual TCM clinics that can rival those in China. This offers TCM practitioners the chance to have more time with the patients, both in treatment and in subsequent consultations. Compare this even to the multi-bed clinics (also known as community acupuncture) where there are more than one patient at a time: the atmosphere is a lot calmer in the western clinics. Practitoners in the west also understand the importance of talking therapies, and whether it be a time concession or an attribute of society, TCM practitioners in China just don’t encourage talking support as well as their western counterparts.


Obviously the quality of training and the practitioner’s actual skill plays a huge role. Counter in the fact that in China it is common for patients to have daily sessions rather than weekly ones, and yes perhaps the success of treatment in China is still higher. Nonetheless, TCM in the west had developed immensely in the past few decades and it should not be looked upon as the inferior cousin. What are your views? 


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Integrating Western Medicine with Complementary Therapies: the importance of East meets West for healthcare.


It is disheartening to think that pharmaceutical companies are not investing as much time and effort into research for antibiotics because there just isn’t as much money in it as heart medication. Heart medication must be taken everyday whereas a course of antibiotics is only a week, and if you add on the fact that resistance makes the drugs useless after a while, well it’s easy to see why pharmaceutical companies aren’t showing that much enthusiasm for difficult research.

This is a problem because this resistance has led scientists to predict that we probably have another 10 years before antibiotics will be futile to fight off bacterial infections. Imagine going back to a time when the risk of infection after surgery will be more deadly than the surgery itself.

This is when traditional acupuncture will be more important than ever. If we, ourselves, are to be the only form of defence against infections then we must make sure our bodies are as prepared as we can make them. This means that along with exercise and a healthy diet, we must also make sure our bodies’ qi is balanced and regulated. Remember, prevention is better than cure.


Photo credit: Michael Mortensen via flickr 

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