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What Happens When Western And Traditional Chinese Medicine Merge

These two treatment philosophies were previously seen as being diametrically opposed, but some experts think the systems can complement each another

(Photo: Lynn Gail/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) at first glance might seem like irreconcilable systems of thought. TCM deals with the body as a whole—the idea is that an individual's constitution, energy and mentality affect that system and that plant and animal parts can balance the body in order to maintain or restore health. Western medicine, on the other hand, relies on empirically gathered data, and pharmaceuticals usually target the problem symptom or source of disease directly. 

Despite the differences between these medical approaches, an increasing number of doctors and researchers are trying to reconcile TCM and Western medicine, the Wall Street Journal reports. In the case of TCM, that means scientifically analyzing components of treatments and attempting to identify the standardized Western equivalent of a typical TCM diagnosis and treatment path. Researchers at major universities in China are involved, as are some at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Yale University and other institutions.

So far, teams have found that gastritis patients who a TCM practitioner would identify as having either hot or cold symptoms do indeed have different assemblies of bacteria on their tongue, the Wall Street Journal writes. Depending on whether they are a hot or cold case, patients might benefit from slightly different therapies, doctors think—an approach to Western medicine that borrows from the individualized treatment regimes of TCM. Such hypotheses will require much more research before they are put into action, however. 

Still, many of the researchers involved are optimistic that both TCM and Western medicine can only benefit from an open exchange of knowledge and ideas. As one expert told the Wall Street Journal, "In such a big-data era, a new way can be eventually found to connect Eastern and Western medicine at the molecular and systematic levels.”

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