Great for smallpox, not so great for chronic pain
Western medicine owes much to Descartes’ 17th Century Cartesian dualism, which severed the non-material mind and spirit, from the material body. The mind and spirit became the domain of the church, and the body became the domain of science.
Modern Western medicine then grew out of this new purely physical science, which pursued objective observation of tangible things, but ignored our subjective experience and concepts that allowed for life’s spiritual aspect.
This means that Western medicine is very good at dealing with problems that can be observed and measured using scientific instruments, like deadly viruses and cancerous tumours. This approach has saved countless lives through achievements like the eradication of smallpox, and breakthroughs in cancer treatment.
However, it also means that Western medicine can be flummoxed by illnesses that don’t show up in blood tests, on X-rays, and so on. To the recipient of Western medical care, it can seem that the illness they are experiencing doesn’t actually exist until Western medicine invents a machine that can ‘see’ what is going on.
Western medicine’s approach is very concerned with the illness, and less concerned with the person experiencing it. The patient needs to exhibit the right set of symptoms before a diagnosis can be made and treatment administered. If their symptoms aren’t on a list, their illness can’t be identified and treated. In simplified terms, the process goes something like this:
STEP 1: Bug A causes symptoms X, Y and Z. Does the patient have symptoms X, Y and Z?
STEP 2: If yes, the patient probably has Bug A. If no, go to step 4
STEP 3: Can we see Bug A in the patient’s blood? If yes, prescribe Drug A to kill Bug A and cure the illness. If no, go to step 4
STEP 4: There is no apparent illness, so the patient can’t be cured. Instead, suppress their symptoms with painkillers or happy pills
This works wonderfully for infectious diseases, but not so well for illnesses with less tangible causes, like chronic pain, fatigue, insomnia and depression. As well as leaving patients at a loss, it creates problems for physicians, who are left trying to find ways to meet their patients’ unique needs using a medical model that ignores individual experience.
Great for chronic pain, not so great for smallpox
Millennia before Cartesian dualism shaped Western medicine, Daoism was shaping Chinese medicine. Daoist philosophy proposes that everything is part of a greater whole: there is no split between mind and body, nature and humans. It embraces tangible things as well as our subjective experience.
As a result of Daoist thought, Chinese medicine focusses on the big picture and is particularly concerned with how each part influences and interacts with every other part. This means that Chinese medicine is equipped to deal with complex problems that have many causes, like chronic pain, fatigue, insomnia and depression.
In describing how all things are connected and interact, Chinese medicine developed concepts like Yin, Yang, Jing, Qi and Shen. Western languages simply don’t have words for equivalent concepts. Whether or not modern Chinese physicians believe that ‘Qi’ and ‘Jing’ are actual substances, they provide a conceptual framework that is very useful in clinical practice, making it possible to devise and administer effective treatment tailored to each individual.
Chinese medicine tends to come up with solutions that have fewer side effects than the Western approach. By looking at the big picture and tracing the intricate interactions of all things back to the root cause, it avoids producing new problems (side effects) when attempting to fix the first problem.
In the absence of scientific instruments like microscopes and x-rays, Chinese medicine observed peoples’ subjective experience to work out how illness arose and developed. As a result, the patient (not the illness) takes centre stage. It is up to the Chinese medic to diagnose and treat the root cause of each patient’s discomfort, regardless of whether or not their symptoms appear on a nice neat list in a textbook.
This all sounds great, but there is a drawback: Unravelling the mysteries of each person’s unique experience requires that a highly trained physician attends to each and every patient, and it takes time. This just isn’t logistically viable when treating millions of people en mass – for example, when eradicating smallpox.
Great for (almost) everything
Neither Western nor Chinese medicine has all the answers, but both are finding ways to compensate for their shortcomings.
Western medicine is trying to overcome Cartesian dualism’s mind-body split by recognising research models that are more suited to interventions like Mindfulness meditation than pill popping, for example. Simple one-size-fits-most treatment protocols have emerged from Chinese medicine, making it possible to roll out large-scale programmes. One example is the NADA acupuncture protocol, now commonly used in Western drug rehabilitation centres.
This is all good stuff, but things get even better when Chinese and Western medicine join forces. A wonderful example is China’s use of acupuncture anaesthesia instead of general anaesthetic during thoracic surgery. In many Chinese hospitals, patients can choose whether to have a general anaesthetic or acupuncture during heart surgery – and those who choose acupuncture experience fewer adverse reactions and recover faster!
British Acupuncture Council members are required to learn Western medical theory in addition to Chinese medicine, and they are equipped (and encouraged) to refer patients to Western medical practitioners when appropriate. How wonderful would it be for their patients if Western doctors were required to honour Chinese medicine in the same way?