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Rise and Rise of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Date: 18th Sept 2017

Speaker: Loretta Marron, CEO of Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM)

Slides: click here

Loretta M at GC Skeptics in the Pub (18th Sept 2017)


During September's GC Skeptics in the Pub, we heard Loretta Marron talk on the "rise and rise of Traditional Chinese Medicine" (TCM) in Australia.

TCM is an ancient practice that aims to prevent or cure disease through maintenance or restoration of "yingyang" balance. A TCM practitioner attempts to achieve this by adjusting the flow of "qi" (a so-called energy physics has thus far failed to detect...) through invisible (a.k.a non-existent) meridians through the use of:

  1. Acupuncture - stimulating non-existent meridians using needles

  2. Moxibustion or cupping - the practice of burning cones of dried leaves on acupuncture points and draws blood to the surface of the skin

  3. Herbs

Like many ancient medical practices, TCM has no scientific underpinning.

Even though TCM has being practiced for many centuries, this does not add any weight to it's legitimacy of the theories it uses to explain human disease; indeed this would be an argument from antiquity. On the contrary, there is significant amounts of evidence to suggest that modalities such as acupuncture are indeed hokum (rather than summarise the evidence here, I recommend reading Science Based Medicine's post on acupuncture).

Some TCM proponents argue that TCM is an effective modality for diagnosing and treating human disease by citing the discovery of artemisinin for malaria as a clear evidence. However, rather than legitimising TCM theories of meridians and qi, the discovery of artemisinin is merely example of how the scientific method leads to medical breakthroughs. Indeed, using traditional herbal remedies as a starting point in drug discovery is not atypical, but rather one of many standard approaches in drug discovery.

So why is TCM on the rise?

Loretta provided a number of policy reasons that TCM, despite an apparent lack of scientific basis, is on the rise in Australia:

  • Over the past 10 years, WHO's director-general Margaret Chan has been a strong advocate for TCM. Chan stepped down in July 2017.

  • The Chinese government has put significant efforts (and $$) into promoting the use of TCM internationally

  • TCM practitioners registered with the Chinese Medicine board of Australia under AHPRA are registered, but are self regulated

  • In Australia's 2014 $18 billion Free-Trade agreement with China singled out TCM

  • Multiple Australian universities provide degrees in TCM

  • Substantial money has been invested into TCM research

(I personally do not have much of an issue with the last point here - as long as rigorous scientific method is followed, we potentially have much to gain from discovering new pharmacophores in the herbal arm of TCM.)

Way forward...

Much like their work with inappropriate and unsubstantiated claims made by chiropractic practitioners, FSM is using a similar framework to tackle such claims made by the self-regulated TCM practitioners.

If you see a local TCM practitioner (or otherwise) who is making unsubstantiated claims about the therapies they offer, you are able to submit a complaint to AHPRA. FSM is able to help you out with this, so might be worth giving them a buzz first...

Contact Loretta Marron and the FSM

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