Tradition in transformation

5 Nov 2018

By Theodore Lim

Mr Frederick Koh, 28, and Ms Cheok Kah Jie, 26, searching for herbs in the dispensary to fill a prescription. They are in their first year of practice as physicians.

The NTU Chinese Medicine Clinic treats ailments ranging from sores throats to colds. Photo Editor Theodore Lim visits the clinic to debunk Chinese medicine myths and learn more about its treatments.

Mention traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and what comes to mind are often images of musty medical halls frequented by the older generation of Chinese and walls stacked high with medicinal herbs.

However, NTU’s TCM clinic in the School of Biological Sciences is well-lit, air-conditioned and colourful.

A bitter scent of Chinese herbs permeates the clinic.

The treatment area, together with a teaching laboratory and a Chinese medicine museum, make up the NTU Chinese Medicine Clinic.

Open to the public, the clinic provides consultations and treatments in fields ranging from internal medicine to paediatrics.

Located on the first floor of SBS, the clinic sees about 30 NTU students every day.

“I chose to visit the clinic for pain relief that isn’t in the form of painkillers. The clinic itself is actually really convenient for students who live on campus because of its location in school,” said third-year Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information student Justin Yeo, 23.

Yeo sought treatment for his foot injury last month.

TCM relies more on natural, herbal remedies to combat ailments, compared to pharmaceutical medicine in Western clinics.

It also uses methods like acupuncture, tuina (push and grasp in Mandarin) and cupping therapy.

Not too different

Ms Cheok Kah Jie, a physician at the NTU Chinese Medicine Clinic, said that TCM consultations are very similar to those in a Western medicine clinic.

“A lot of people think that all we do is the stereotypical pulse-searching routine, and that we make a diagnosis directly from there, but it’s much more than that. TCM practitioners are taught to use all our five senses, such as smell, touch and hearing to understand our patients better,” added the 26-year-old.

Ms Cheok graduated from SBS with a double degree in Biomedical Sciences and Traditional Chinese Medicine last year.

Under the five-year programme, students are taught the properties of Chinese herbs and TCM theories.

They spend their final two years in Beijing to further their studies in Chinese medicine at an established hospital.

Following modern practices

TCM has now begun to include various hygiene practices that are common in Western medicine.

For example, they use a new pair of disposable gloves for every patient, as well as sterilised needles for acupuncture.

Consultation rooms have blood pressure machines, alcohol wipes, and sterile bins for used needles.

The NTU Chinese Medicine Clinic also uses diagnostic methods in Western medicine, such as x-rays and cardiac radiology, to complement its traditional Chinese methods of healing.

The TCM trade is set to gain more legitimacy in the future, due to research developments in the industry.

Current TCM research is centred on understanding the active components in herbs that give them qualities like anti-bacterial and anti-inflammation properties, said Mr Frederick Koh, 28, Ms Cheok’s colleague and another registered physician at the clinic.

“This will really help to change people’s perceptions of our field of practice, and I hope that science and TCM can continue to come together and complement Western medicine.”

At the back of the clinic’s dispensary sits a well-stocked wooden medicine cabinet, which is designed like traditional ones seen in older medicine halls.

A mixture of goji (wolfberries), ju hua (chrysanthemum flowers), dong chong xia cao (cordyceps), and sang ye (mulberry leaves). A remedy using these herbs is said to cure fatigue, and is commonly dispensed to students.

Dispensary staff member Mr Li Caiming, cuts up du zhong (eucommia bark) into smaller pieces to be used in herbal remedies. Du zhong helps to lower blood pressure.

The use of powdered herbs has become more common in TCM, for easier consumption.

Ms Cheok performs cupping therapy on a patient’s back. The placement of these glass cups at strategic locations on a patient’s back helps to relieve pain, reduce inflammation and improve blood flow.

Ms Cheok administers acupuncture on a patient’s wrist to relieve soreness. The use of sterilised, one-time use needles in clean packaging has become the norm among Chinese medicine practitioners.