The Current State of TCM: What is Integrative Medicine?

Posted November 21, 2017 by Acupuncture & Massage College

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Conventional vs Holistic Medicine: In the first article of our Philosophy and Traditional Chinese Medicine series, we discussed the differences between conventional and holistic medicine. Conventional or Western medicine takes a reductionist or pure physical (bodily) approach to healing, while holistic or non-conventional medicine takes a whole-person or physical (bodily) and non-physical (mind) approach to healing.

As discussed in previous blogs, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is considered to be a system of holistic medicine, because it has a whole-person view of the body. According to TCM, the state of a person’s different non-physical substances (e.g. balance of qi) determines his/her overall health. Bodily afflictions then, are viewed as symptoms, rather than causes of illness.

Western vs Eastern Medicine

TCM is Holistic Medicine: Holistic treatments use natural and/or minimally invasive mind-body practices (massages, herbal remedies, meditation, etc.) to help restore and maintain the physical and non-physical well-being of an individual. The healing modalities of TCM (acupuncture, tui na, etc.) seek to restore a healthy balance of the Five Vital Substances. Balancing the Vital Substances (non-physical) will restore bodily (physical) health.

TCM as an Alternative and Complementary Practice: In the West, holistic medicine is utilized either as an alternative or complementary practice. An alternative medical treatment replaces or acts in place of a conventional medical treatment, while a complementary medical treatment is used in conjunction with a conventional practice.

 For the past three articles, we analyzed several examples of how Traditional Chinese Medicine (also known as Oriental Medicine) is utilized either as an alternative or complementary practice. Typically, Oriental Medicine is utilized as an alternative practice when there is good evidence of its effectiveness and when patients wish to avoid the potential side-effects that conventional medicine can have. 

On the other hand, Oriental Medicine is typically utilized as complementary practice when conventional medicine is either medically required or when a holistic treatment is not sufficient in healing a particular illness. In these cases, the complementary practice is used to treat the symptoms of the primary illness or to treat the side-effects of a conventional medical treatment.

In the last article, we cited a study where acupuncture was used in conjunction with SSRIs, a commonly prescribed conventional antidepressant. According to the study, using SSRIs and acupuncture seems to better treat depression than using SSRIs alone. This study is particularly interesting, because acupuncture is more commonly utilized as alternative to SSRIs.

acupuncture model

Future of TCM in the West: This is the first time that we have discussed a holistic practice that can be used as an alternative treatment or a complementary treatment for the same illness. Does this example give us any insights about the future of holistic medicine, especially TCM, in the modern West?

Possibly. Holistic medicine is more commonly used as a complementary practice than as an alternative practice. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Heath, “True alternative medicine is uncommon. Most people who use non-mainstream approaches use them along with conventional treatments.

While this statement suggests that future trend for holistic medicine (including TCM) is complementary rather than alternative, it should not imply that holistic practices are being replaced by modern medicine. On the contrary, holistic medicine in the modern West is becoming more mainstream.

Integrative Medicine: In more recent times, there has been a newer approach to complementary medicine known as Integrative Medicine, which utilizes holistic and conventional treatments in a “coordinated way.” More specifically, the NCCIH defines it as “incorporating complementary approaches into mainstream health care”.

The integrative approach is similar to, but different than the complementary approach. In our TCM as a complementary practice article, we cite scientific studies done on complementary practices in controlled medical settings. These studies are cited for the sake of analysis, evidence, and credibility, but real world practice is often different.

Integrative Medicine

In most places, holistic treatments are not offered by mainstream healthcare providers. Instead, those patients that want a holistic option have to seek treatment at a separate location. Consequently, many of these patients do not tell their regular doctors that they are receiving other treatments. In fact, one study done on chronic pain patients claimed that as many as one-third of acupuncture users do not tell their regular doctors that they are receiving the treatments.

 And even if these patients were to tell their primary doctors that they are receiving acupuncture (or any holistic) treatments, there is no guarantee that a Western doctor would be well-informed enough on Oriental Medicine to give the best advice possible. Similarly, there are a lot of modern medical issues that are beyond the professional scope of an acupuncturist.

Rather than having to withhold potentially important medical information or relying on nonprofessional judgments, the integrative approach to health allows for patients to receive both conventional and holistic treatments with cooperation and under the coordination of their respective specialists.


Short Interview with Janet Shaffer, acupuncturist at Duke.

For example, in the earlier case of using SSRIs and acupuncture to treat depression, an integrative approach to medicine would be to have a psychiatrist and acupuncturist collaborating together to ensure that the prescribed SSRIs and scheduled acupuncture treatments are working well together in treating a patient’s depression effectively. This collaboration allows the specialists to better monitor the progress of their mutual patient and to better modify treatment when needed.

The Future of Integrative Medicine: Integrative medicine allows for conventional and holistic practices to be integrated together in the most effective manner. However, in order for integrative medicine to become a standard practice in the West, it first needs to become a common practice at major hospitals, which is primary setting for establishing new medical practices and research in the West.

Thankfully, many of the leading hospital and university medical systems in the US already have integrative medicine centers, including: Harvard Medical School, Duke University Health Organization, John Hopkins Medicine, and the University of Miami Hospital and Clinics.

A short documentary on Acupuncture from an Integrative Medicine point of view.

It is important that these prestigious university and hospital systems continue to research and explore different holistic treatments, especially Oriental Medicine, as integrative medical practices, because they will undoubtedly influence how other hospitals across the country operate. Perhaps in the future, acupuncturists and other holistic medicine experts will become common staff positions at hospitals and doctor's offices.

The future of TCM in the West: The Integrative approach to health and medicine seems to be the future trend of how Oriental Medicine will be practiced in the West.

However, this does not mean that Traditional Chinese Medicine will cease to be used as an alternative practice. On the contrary, I believe that its proven strengths as an integrative practice will act as a kind of medicinal gateway for patients to try the modalities of Oriental Medicine as alternative treatments.

Ultimately, it will be the ill patients that decided which mode of healing to try: conventional, holistic, or integrative. And it will be the healed patients that will speak to the effectiveness of their chosen mode.

Altnerative and Conventional Medicine Iceberg

The underlining principles of medicine are the same, regardless of modality.

For now, the trend of practicing integral medicine seems to hold a lot of promise and potential for the future of health. It suggests that in the future, receiving both conventional and holistic treatments at regular doctor’s offices and hospitals will become more common. In many ways, this seems like the best way to let conventional and holistic medicine coexist as medical practices. After all, the purpose of medicine is to heal and there is no reason why an ill patient should not seek healing from more than one proven mode of medicine.

Naturally, the future is always hard to predict and very little can be said about it with absolute certainty. What we know for sure is that has been a long-time since the Yellow Emperor’s Canon was written. As long as Traditional Chinese Medicine continues to exist in the West, it will undoubtedly influence other approaches to science and medicine.

Yellow Emperor's Classic Manuscript

Manuscript ofThe Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor, circa 300 BC.

As Integrative Medicine continues to grow, so will the need for licensed-acupuncturists. If you're interested in learning more about becoming an acupuncturist, download our free career guide below. Acupuncture and Massage College is located in Miami, FL and offers an accredited degree program in Oriental Medicine.


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