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Blog: Traditional Chinese Medicine

Rachel Howard, November 2013

Before moving to Singapore from the UK two years ago, I had heard of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM or 中医) but had little concept of what it involved. My limited knowledge was vague; perceptions of ancient herbal soups and mysterious remedies from strange animal parts. The word ‘traditional’ made me think TCM was something of a dying art, with a limited role to play in modern, affluent urban metropolises in Asia such as Singapore.

Traditional chinese medicine pharmacy
Traditional chinese medicine pharmacy

Before moving to Singapore from the UK two years ago, I had heard of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM or 中医) but had little concept of what it involved. My limited knowledge was vague; perceptions of ancient herbal soups and mysterious remedies from strange animal parts. The word ‘traditional’ made me think TCM was something of a dying art, with a limited role to play in modern, affluent urban metropolises in Asia such as Singapore.

On arrival in Asia, I was therefore surprised to discover just how deeply ingrained TCM is in modern Singaporean Chinese culture.  For example, one of the largest hospitals in Singapore, SGH, has a dedicated TCM centre in which patients can claim treatment costs against their insurance.  TCM practitioners in Singapore have to study for at least 5 years to be registered to practice (even longer in China and Taiwan!). My friends and colleagues in Singapore regularly turn to TCM in preference to pharmaceutical medication for everything from the common cold to chronic constipation, and whenever we conduct research into any chronic diseases in the region, TCM almost inevitably crops up in some form.

When a new TCM clinic opened in my local shopping mall, I decided to satisfy my curiosity and experience TCM for myself by taking a ‘field trip’...

The clinic itself was indistinguishable from my regular doctor’s surgery, with sterile white walls and clinical instruments; it just felt far more ‘zen’.  The consultation began in much the same way as any other doctor I’ve visited – “tell me what your problem is, Rachel?”. Then the doctor (with the help of a simultaneous translator brought in especially to assist) asked me a range of more unexpected questions, including what temperature I prefer to drink water and what kind of weather I fear. Next, she asked if she could take a look at my tongue and take my pulse. 

Having taken copious notes, the doctor’s diagnosis was that my body was too ‘heaty’, and I should try acupuncture and take 5 days of medicine.  The acupuncture, which she explained was designed to redirect my energy flow and improve my circulation, felt fascinating. I had boldly said no when she had asked me if I was scared as she started sticking pins into my arms, but that was before I realised the next step was to run an electric current through the 20 pins covering pressure points all over my arms and legs. While I was ‘relaxing’ with the electric current (which didn’t exactly hurt, but reminded me of continuous simultaneous ant bites), she was preparing my medication, which came in powdered sachet form to be taken with water.  Modern TCMs are now often available in more palatable capsule or powder forms, far removed from the original form of the ingredients. Still not the most delicious drink I’ve ever tasted.

While the jury’s still out on how well it worked for me, my experience reinforced the importance of recognising the impact of TCM when conducting pharmaceutical market research in many Asian markets (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia... not to mention TKM, or Traditional Korean Medicine, in South Korea). It is important for us to recognise that there are variations of TCM in Asia (not specific to China), which are often very deeply ingrained into healthcare systems and patient psychology.  TCM cannot be regarded merely as some ‘hippie alternative therapy’ that serious researchers or marketers need only pay lip service to.  Despite the ‘traditional’ connotations, TCM should be recognised as a real –and not inferior – alternative, even for young affluent Asian professionals, and one which is unlikely to be replaced with Western pharmaceuticals in the future.

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