June 24, 2024

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Commentary: If TCM really works, why are some still sceptical about it?

2 min read

INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE: THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS?

What does it mean for two systems of medicine to be integrated?

In its ideal form, integrative medicine seeks to combine Western medicine with traditional, complementary and alternative therapies for a more holistic healthcare system.

Proponents argue that this benefits patients by increasing the range of choice and allowing them to tailor treatment to their needs and values. Integrative medicine can also allow for better coordination across treatments and methodologies to potentially reduce side effects. For instance, patients can minimise the side effects of chemotherapy by incorporating acupuncture or massage.

Additionally, integrating traditional practices may offer alternative treatments for conditions that are not well-addressed by Western medicine alone. For example, patients with many chronic conditions like fibromyalgia, migraines, and chronic fatigue syndrome have been observed to find relief through TCM.

Integration offers some benefits to practitioners of traditional medicines as well. For them, integration with conventional medicine can mean an increase in the perceived legitimacy of their practice, and also, not inconsequentially, an increase in the number of patients and income that they can access.

Even so, some TCM practitioners are sceptical. For them, what matters is respect for the authenticity of the traditional medicine itself. Because integration often entails fitting into the dominant medical paradigm (biomedicine), this can mean that traditional practices are forced to water down or modify their practice to conform to expectations.

Many hospitals in Singapore already offer integrated medicine to some extent. For example, Sengkang’s General Hospital, National University Hospital, Singapore General Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital all offer acupuncture services alongside the conventional medical services.

While it’s true that patients can and often do access both TCM and conventional medicine in Singapore, currently, each tradition of medicine operates in its own domain. This means practitioners rarely, if ever, actively collaborate with regard to the care of a patient. In fact, many people who consume traditional medicine are hesitant to disclose their use of it to their biomedical doctors, often because they do not want to be shamed or scolded for being “backward”.

But with Healthier SG’s emphasis on coordinated care planning, this may change. Though we have yet to see how it will play out, this could mean more active dialogue between conventional medical doctors and TCM practitioners.

For patients, better coordination between a family doctor and a TCM doctor could help avoid possible negative interactions between certain herbal remedies and pharmaceuticals. If patients were previously reticent to share or disclose their use of these herbs, they could have been exposed to undue risks. But with better coordination across care, these risks could be more effectively minimised.

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