Great Britain has become the first Western nation to consider giving legal status to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
The British Department of Health has held a public hearing on proposed statutory regulation of herbal medicine and acupuncture practitioners.
The proposal suggests a shared Complementary and Alternative Medicine Council (CAM Council) to be established for herbal medicine practitioners, which include Western herbal medicine, TCM, Indian ayurveda and Japanese kampo, and both traditional and Western acupuncture practitioners.
While Chinese acupuncture was introduced into Britain in the 1960s, traditional Chinese herbal medicine only began to attract British patients in the 1980s. This led to a mistaken perception on the part of the public and the government that the two therapies are unrelated.
The proposal recognizes the herbal medicine and acupuncture treatments as a single profession. It recommends awarding the protected title, "traditional Chinese medicine practitioner" to those who qualify.
"Britain has been ahead of other occidental countries in accepting TCM, which will obviously benefit the international development of the profession," said Zhang Xiaorui, a World Health Organization (WHO) official.
"The proposals by the British government respond to the current situation of TCM in Britain," said Ma Kanwen, TCM professor and honorary advisory research fellow with University College London.
Owing to the failure of Britain's National Health Service (NHS) to fully guarantee timely medical services for the public, the government has long tolerated unregulated complementary medicine.
However, the absence of regulation has resulted in various problems, such as unqualified people passing themselves off as TCM practitioners. Ultimately, the situation tarnishes the reputation of TCM, with both Chinese herbal medicine and Chinese patent medicine merely regarded as complementary health tonics on the British market.
Some unqualified TCM practitioners and Chinese herbal medicine dealers have harmed patients by issuing bad prescriptions or selling inferior herbal medicines. Such situations are fodder for headlines in the British media and have severely undermined the reputation of TCM.
In June 1999, the Industry Branch of the British Department of Health made public two cases in which British patients suffered kidney damage after taking Manchurian Dutchman's pipe stem (Guang mu tong) of the Aristolochia L. family. Aristolochia L. herbal medicines have been permanently banned.
In November 2000, the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology designated Chinese herbal medicine in its report on Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a treatment with "poor effect, lack of scientific proof and not worthy of promotion and research."
In September 2001, the Industry Branch of the British Department of Health and the British advisory Committee on Safety of Medicines made public new TCM toxicity and side-effect cases and said "even the most optimistic view is reluctant to endorse the guaranteed safety of TCM."
London-based TCM practitioner Dr. Luo Dinghui, who is also vice chairperson of the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies, said the British government now feels the immediate necessity to take the reins of the TCM profession.
Ma Kanwen said the proposed legislation will help overhaul the practice of TCM in Britain and establish its de facto legal status despite the restrictions on it.
Zhang Xiaorui said that Britain's legal recognition of TCM and other non-Western medical practices is a huge step forward and one that will protect the image and development of TCM. But she warned that it will take more time for Westerners to accept many of the underlying principles of TCM, such as yin and yang (opposing forces existing in nature) and the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), a theory used by ancient Chinese philosophers to explain the origin of the world and by TCM physicians to make pathological diagnoses.
Various institutions and groups, including the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (UK), have responded to the proposal. The British Department of Health is reviewing the opinions it has collected and is updating its proposal, which should be released within the next few months. Afterward, lawyers and legal advisors will draft a bill to be presented to the British Parliament for review.
(China.org.cn by Chen Chao, June 26, 2004)