Monday, December 7, 2009

Worm tea, black garlic, and tiger balm: TCM 2009

So are you getting sick of the constant flux of three letter acronyms, or TLA's, as they're called here? Almost anything that's labeled with three words is shortened to a TLA in Singapore; it makes for a very confusing conversation with someone if you have no idea what they're talking about. Regardless, this past weekend, I attended a two-day conference on TCM or Traditional Chinese Medicine.

I heard about the conference through my staff email, and after seeing that it would be a two day exhibition on traditional herbs, roots, and animal products used in Chinese Medicine throughout SE Asia, with presenters from the ministry of health from each of the major countries in the region, I was hooked. As a future doctor (I hope!), this topic is extremely interesting to me, because I find it fascinating to see how medicine operates in different cultures. What made the conference even more appealing to me was that my school agreed to pay the registration fee ($150), and it was going to be held almost entirely in Mandarin with translators speaking through headsets... very U.N.-esque.

Anyway, on Friday I was able to leave work at noon for the conference, and headed down to the largest convention center in Singapore, the Suntec Singapore International Convention Center. This place was enormous - it was floor after floor of wide open space filled with various events, shows, presentations, and conferences. And on the bottom floor... an enormous hawker center (of course, because Singaporean culture revolves around food. Which I love.)

When I walked into the TCM conference on Friday, I immediately noticed that I was the only white person in the room. And so did all the photographers. I arrived thirty minutes before the talks were scheduled to begin, so I wandered around some of the exhibits, where I was able to sample cordyceps tea (a tea brewed from a worm grown at 4000m in Tibet, priced at $100/g), black garlic (normal garlic treated with herbs and processes until it is black, soft, and sweet, priced at $12/head), and tiger balm (the omnipresent miracle cream in Singapore, it cures everything from mosquito bites to flatulence to muscle aches). All the while, there must have been over 50 pictures taken of me by the photographers, as I was clearly unique to their conference.

Once the conference began, I moved into the presentation room with all of the other industry members and trade workers who actually belonged there. I was passed my headset, and quickly put it on as the first presenters began delivering their talks in Mandarin. The translations were actually quite decent, and it was fairly easy to follow the talks along with the presentation slides (which were often half English/half Mandarin, but not always). But I learned some pretty interesting things from this conference on TCM:

- TCM has been used for thousands of years throughout SE Asia and Asia in general, with the traditional prescriptions being passed down from generation to generation
- Only in recent years have there been implementations of regulations on the use of TCM, and actually TCM in many countries is approaching the same level of legislation and regulation as for mainstream medicine
- Recent research on TCM has grown to the point that specific scientific breakthroughs, like targeted capsules and microsphers, are being applied to TCM in much the same way as mainstream medicine

But even with these "mainstream" advances applied to TCM, TCM has still not garnered widespread political support, even in SE Asia. Many of the speakers still focused their presentations on defending TCM against mainstream medicine, while trying to prove the benefits and advantages of TCM over mainstream medicine. Much of these defensive arguments probably arose from the following, disturbingly apparent, fact:

In the English speaking population of Singapore, up to 61% of the population will choose a TCM doctor before a mainstream doctor. So there is a huge market for TCM in Singapore, as well as in SE Asia in general. HOWEVER, Singaporean businesses require MC or Medical Certificate for any sick day taken - but ONLY from mainstream doctors. So even though the great majority of its citizens prefer to utilize TCM doctors to treat sicknesses, they are still required by the government to visit a mainstream doctor if they don't want to get in trouble at work. This simple fact cripples the TCM industry against its mainstream competitors, even though much of the patient population choose TCM over mainstream medicine.

What does the future hold for TCM in SE Asia? TCM suppliers of ASEAN, or the Association of SE Asian Nations, are currently focused on forming a unified TCM distribution group to increase their market size (from small country-based fragments to >500 million patients), which would siginificantly increase the political and social support for TCM. Who knows, maybe in the near future applications from TCM will find their way into Western medicine...

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