Why should Chinese medicine students learn Western science?

western_medicine_immunologyI don’t have the answer to that question. But, I’ll do my best. To be honest, studying Western science can be pretty interesting. As an intellectual exercise, nothing beats having to go from learning to read and translate passages of the Shang Han Lun to attempting to comprehend the importance of Th1 and Th2 responses in the body. It’s… rigorous, to be sure. As the second part of my “term in review” series, I’d like to briefly discuss my Immunology class (Fall term 2007) with Dr. Heather Zwickey.

As part of our Classical Chinese Medicine curriculum at NCNM, we learn a variety of Western subjects. We learn anatomy, physiology and biochemistry first. We move on to learn some Western pathology, Western oriented CPD (clinical physical diagnosis) and most recently, immunology. We will also learn pharmacology, microbiology and a Western approach to public health. Our professors attempt, with varying degrees of success, to integrate these subjects with the insights we are collecting in the Chinese medicine oriented majority of the curriculum. Their efforts are greatly appreciated, but the fact of the matter is that we are still doing a lot of memorizing and seeking to understand information within the materialist scientific framework. Why should we learn about this stuff as students of Classical Chinese Medicine?

First, maybe I should answer the question, “Why shouldn’t we?” Well, first – It’s outside the LAc (licensed acupuncturist) scope of practice for the most part. We’re not able to make, or even confirm or question, Western diagnoses. So while we can receive information that a person has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, we are not supposed to suggest that fibromyalgia might or might not be an appropriate classification for a patient’s symptoms. Further, very difficult (if not impossible) to make particularly good predictions about Chinese medicine diagnoses based on a Western disease name. Thus, for the average Chinese medicine school graduate, Western medical information isn’t going to be particularly helpful in Chinese medicine diagnosis and treatment. So, why? Why do we have to learn this?

Despite my well-documented resistance to accepting these courses as a valid part of Chinese medicine education, I can think of a few benefits:

1. The ability to recognize emergency situations that would be better handled by the facilities and expertise of Western urgent care and emergency room physicians.

2. The ability to understand potentially life threatening herbal interactions with medications and patient conditions.

3. The opportunity to make attempts at finding correspondences between Western and Chinese concepts, thus potentially building bridges between these disciplines. Without having some basis in the Western sciences, moving toward this kind of understanding is impossible.

4. The ability to carry on basic conversations with Western practitioners about a patient’s symptoms, disease categorization, lab results and pharmaceutical intervention. This could increase the possibility for cross referrals, as people tend to trust people who “speak their language.”

Despite these potential benefits, I think that this part of the education should be kept to a bare minimum. If particular students are very interested in the Western medicine aspect of things, there are plenty of educational opportunities for them outside of our Chinese medicine schools. In our case at NCNM, interested students are fortunate to have the ND (Naturopathic) students and faculty in the same institution. This is helpful because NDs are required to be far more conversant in contemporary Western medical science.

All of this aside, Immunology with Dr. Zwickey was a great experience. As a researcher, teacher, natural medicine enthusiast and medical philosopher she is a dynamo, make no mistake. Dr. Zwickey is the director of the Helfgott Research Institute, an incredible resource for the natural medicine community and recipient of grant monies from a variety of prestigious sources. She infects (no pun intended) everyone around her with a love for research, for the general spirit of open inquiry. She is able to break very complicated biochemical processes down into simple language that anyone can understand. She’s also one of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever met. Because of these and other admirable personal characteristics of Dr. Z, the course was engaging and tricked me into spending countless hours trying to understand the particulars of immunological reactions and interactions.

I am interested to hear from you, kind readers, about any insights you have obtained in Chinese medicine by deeply studying Western medical science. Do you feel that studying Western medicine has greatly enriched you as a scholar and/or practitioner of Chinese medicine? Please let us know in the comments.

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.

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