I wrote this article in 2007, and have updated it a little bit. What’s interesting is that my view of what makes a great Chinese medicine practitioner hasn’t changed that much. That’s because I have created my ideas about this by watching those practitioners whom I respect the most, who take their cues primarily from the ancients. Enjoy its re-release! (Note: for all of these older articles being republished, comments will be old and the person who wrote them may no longer be monitoring the site.)
1. She has an unflinching dedication to lifelong scholarship. This is absolutely, positively ESSENTIAL. A good doctor is a good student (the reverse is not always true). Several thousand years of the practice of Chinese medicine have resulted in an avalanche of information. With the Internet and text digitization, more and more of that information is becoming available to people from all parts of the world. One could spend a lifetime investigating only a tiny portion of that information. Further complicating matters, human beings and nature are in a constant state of transformation – meaning there is always something new to understand! Knowing more doesn’t guarantee a practitioner will be able to treat more effectively, but it lays the foundation.
2. She has excellent clinical abilities. Every moment of the patient-doctor relationship has the potential to be therapeutic – so this doesn’t apply only to a person’s skill with needles. Combine this with the first feature and you should also have a doctor who is constantly at work improving their clinical skills, from the first handshake to holding space for your experience to creating a follow-up treatment plan.
3. He is familiar with other systems of medicine. I don’t think a great doctor of any tradition can be a jack-of-all-trades. Every medical tradition is deep and broad, so a lifetime of study and practice cannot exhaust its secrets. Still, basic familiarity with other systems – particularly Western medicine in all its youthful exuberance – shows a willingness to understand the human body and experience from many angles. Whether or not a practitioner actually uses this information in daily clinical practice is not important. Being conversant enough to make appropriate referrals when necessary is important.
4. He will understand the Classical basis of the medicine. Chinese medicine is a tradition based on… well, tradition. In a youth and future obsessed culture this can seem a little quaint. However, Chinese medicine works best when it takes seriously the proposition that the past holds vast wisdom. Being well acquainted with the foundational texts of Chinese medicine, being engaged in the process of understanding what they mean, and being capable of using classical technique is utterly essential to utilizing the true power of Chinese medicine. Do all practitioners need to be “classical” to be effective? Probably not. But you must know what you are rejecting, or moving beyond, in order to do so with any kind of authenticity.
5. She will have an impeccable personal character. I do not believe you can separate the medicine from the (wo)man. A good Chinese medicine practitioner will be honest, forthright, ultimately gentle and in every way the picture of ethical behavior. Obviously, none of us are saints. But, I do believe that sincere efforts and ongoing improvement in this is essential.
6. She will have a reasonable pricing structure and be reasonably skilled in basic business. I feel that developing a pricing structure that is both fair and yet allows the physician to make a living shows that the doctor cares about the medicine. Charging exorbitant prices on the one hand, or on the other not securing enough material resources to survive? Neither is a viable strategy. The former price deserving people out of a powerful medicine. The latter creates burned out, sullen, ineffective practitioners. Money is a sore issue for many people in this profession – nothing inspires such spirited debate. I encourage you to look carefully at your attitudes around money and making a living as a practitioner. Perhaps a gift economy type model is best for you and your value system. Perhaps not. Don’t make that decision lightly. Relevant business training by someone like Mark Silver may help you in your discernment.
7. He will have an approachable manner and willingness to answer questions and concerns. One of the things I always found frustrating about my Western primary care physician was his unwillingness to discuss with me the questions and concerns I had. Often, I would be brushed off with a casual explanation of a problem, even when I demonstrated that I knew a fair bit about the subject and simply needed clarification or a slightly more advanced understanding. I understand that often this attitude is due to the high time pressure so many PCPs are under. There may be other important reasons. However, I feel it is even more vital in Chinese medicine that doctors are willing to address patient questions. Why? Because there is little knowledge about Chinese medicine in Western culture. Patients may have questions about the theory behind a treatment or diagnostic procedure, they may have concerns about herb-drug interactions, they may want to discuss lifestyle options that would assist or hinder their treatment… all of these questions should be addressed in a compassionate manner.
There are obviously many lists that could be made to address the essential features of Chinese medicine practitioners. We could go into more detail with any of these points, and more. I’d say that this list is more practical, more patient-focused. Given this, would you add anything to the list or take anything away? Click below and leave a comment to share your wisdom.
About Eric Grey
Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.