Traditional Chinese medicine is still a divisive issue in BC

East and West haven’t truly met with regard to traditional Chinese medicine.

A recent announcement that Kwantlen Polytechnic University will host B.C.’s first public school of TCM has drawn criticism from the association representing physicians in the province.

But according to Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk, the measure is about giving everyone a choice.

“We want to give British Columbians the choice of how they manage their health care in terms of the kinds of programs that they feel are appropriate,” Virk told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “If one association has a slightly different view, I’m not going to be alarmed by that.”

The establishment of a TCM school in a public postsecondary institution was promised by Premier Christy Clark in last year’s throne speech. That promise was reiterated in the B.C. Liberal platform during the May 2013 election campaign.

“It’s about promises made and it’s about promises kept,” said Virk, MLA for Surrey-Tynehead.

For the association previously known as the B.C. Medical Association and recently renamed Doctors of B.C., things aren’t quite as simple as that.

According to Dr. Lloyd Oppel, chair of the organization’s council on health promotion, the government didn’t consider the “perspective of the scientific medical community” regarding TCM. He asserted that most studies have “failed to find evidence of effec­tiveness” for this ancient system of diagnosing and curing illnesses.

“If the courses being offered are not based on good evidence or if there’s good evidence that treatments being offered are ineffec­tive or harmful, then, you know, offering things that aren’t real or safe in a university context may give people the wrong impression that they’re getting genuine health treatment,” Oppel told the Straight in a phone interview. “And so, if—and I’m saying if—if universities offer courses like that, then there’s a risk the public may be harmed.”

He cited as an example the fact that although many Chinese herbal remedies have been around for hundreds of years, some in recent times have been tested and found to be poisonous, such as those made from plants of the genus Aristolochia. In 2001, Health Canada ordered the removal from the market of products containing the herb, an ingredient used in weight-loss and other preparations.

Oppel also referred to acupuncture, a form of TCM cure, as “random pokes in the skin”.

In addition to herbal remedies and acupuncture, TCM treatments also include energy exercises and massages.

Acupuncturist Poppi Sabhaney countered that TCM is “as valid as western medicine”.

“They both have their place,” Sabhaney told the Straight in a phone interview. “If you have a compounded fracture sticking out of your leg, I don’t want to see you. But I will help you after you recover because I have things that will help you recover quicker, where western medicine says: ‘Sit and rest and wait.’ ”

Sabhaney is a member of the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture, the organization that resulted from the merger last year of the Qualified Acupuncturists and TCM Association, and the Traditional Chinese Medicine Association of British Columbia. He was the president of the TCMABC.

Sabhaney also disputed claims that there’s no proof of the effectiveness of TCM.

“Just because it’s not in English doesn’t mean it’s not around,” he said. “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies in Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese. Even, I know in Hindi, I’ve seen acupuncture studies showing, you know, that it does work.”

According to Sabhaney, western-medicine doctors oppose TCM because they’re afraid of losing “power”.

“At one time, a doctor was god. You didn’t argue with them. You didn’t say anything. You said, ‘Whatever you say.’ You just take it as gospel,” Sabhaney said.

TCM is provincially regulated. It’s recognized by the government as meeting risk standards and providing health benefits to the public. At the national level, Health Canada regulates TCM products, which numbered more than 2,000 as of April 2013.

At present, TCM programs in B.C. are offered in private schools.

More steps will follow Advanced Education Minister Virk’s announcement on January 24 about Kwantlen serving as the home of a public school. A program advisory committee will be set up to guide the development of the new school. Burnaby North MLA Richard Lee, who was appointed in December 2013 as parliamentary secretary for traditional Chinese medicine, will sit on the committee.

Virk, indicating that the school may open sometime in 2015, said: “British Columbians support traditional health care. They support complementary health care, and we’ve heard that loud and clear.”

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