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Acupuncture Today – September, 2008, Vol. 09, Issue 09

Oriental Medicine: Traditional or Not?

By Martha Lucas, PhD, LAc

Let me begin by saying I am not a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practitioner. I neither want to be, nor will I ever be one. And I find it hard to believe you want to be called that, either.

We do not practice an "alternative" medicine. We don't practice "complementary" medicine. We practice Oriental medicine - a complete system of medicine supported by numerous studies, texts and thousands of years of practice. Were it not for regulatory agencies' fear, ignorance and pressure from practitioners of other medicines, our label (in every state) would be Oriental Medicine Doctor/Physician. So, why are so many so willing to accept a label that does not fit our profession?

I am a practitioner of Oriental medicine, and if you receive Acupuncture Today, you are likely a practitioner of Oriental medicine as well. Even though you may be known as an acupuncturist, as we are here in Colorado, you were trained to practice a complete system of medicine. Acupuncture is just one well-known therapy in that system. It's the therapy with which most people are familiar. Take into account the name of this publication. It's not called Oriental Medicine Today, even though the articles span topics from color therapy to dry needling (a technique used by physical therapists).

The main question is: Why is our profession caving in and allowing some other entity to label us and what we do? Why are we willing to be marginalized as "alternative medicine" practitioners? There is nothing alternative about Oriental medicine or traditional Chinese medicine.

Traditional: an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom); a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable; the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction; cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions; characteristic manner, method, or style. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

This definition does not characterize what the general public thinks of as "alternative" medicine. Can't we be proud of the fact that we practice an effective system of medicine that is thousands of years older than Western medicine? Aren't we proud enough to stand steadfast in the use of titles that are appropriate for our profession, rather than be labeled as something we are not? Are we not well enough educated on the evidence of our medicine's effectiveness? Can we not delineate its strengths?

Compare traditions: thousands of years with volumes of work describing the medicine's success versus modern medicine's history of little more than 100 years. To be certain, allopathic medicine has its strengths (surgery, testing, emergency medicine, etc.), but knowledge of how Oriental medicine works is not one of them, nor is its interest in preventative medicine. This brings me back to the question: Why are we allowing physicians and their proponents, who know little or nothing about our medicine, to label us, control us and marginalize us?

We cannot roll over and accept the label of "CAM." That label is not only unfair, but also factually inaccurate. It is pejorative and suggests something negative about our medicine.

Alternative: offering or expressing a choice; different from the usual or conventional: something existing or functioning outside the established cultural, social, or economic system. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Despite the fact that "alternative" has generally been synonymous with "choice" when used to describe Oriental medicine, it implies something negative, ineffective, unproven and maybe even harmful. At the least, it implies that the medicine exists "outside the established system." "Alternative" medicine is, in many people's eyes, the equivalent of voodoo. Why then, are we so willing to accept the label "alternative medicine practitioner"?

Alternative medicine:

  1. A variety of therapeutic or preventive health care practices that do not follow generally accepted medical methods and may not have a scientific explanation for their effectiveness. (American Heritage Dictionary)
  2. Faith healing (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
  3. Unconventional health care practices (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)
  4. Alternative medicine includes dietary supplements, megadose vitamins, herbal preparations, special teas, acupuncture, massage therapy, magnet therapy, spiritual healing, and meditation. (National Cancer Institute)

And just listen to people talk about alternative medicine. They include things like ozone therapy and every other New Age therapy that pops up. Is this the category of medicine in which we wish to be included? Are we willing to be characterized as "not following accepted medical methods" and having no "scientific explanation for effectiveness"? "Special teas" ... please.

Oriental medicine should not be included in a category of techniques or therapies that are not medicine. This is one of the reasons why the general public has such doubt in Oriental medicine; they see it in the same vein as the other "alternative" medicines that are popularized. Our medicine can stand on its own merits. It does not need to be - and indeed should not be - lumped into another system called CAM.

My interest in this alternative medicine issue isn't new. Some years ago, I started an organization called the Professional Association of Traditional Healers (PATH), whose mission was twofold: to organize practitioners of what were considered "alternative therapies" and to protect consumers by creating guidelines for membership that included elements of training (level of education, formal training in the therapy, internships, research, etc.). However, it quickly became apparent that many of the practitioners who wanted to join had little or no formal education beyond high school, and had what I would call "vague" training in their craft - sometimes no training. They just felt they had a "gift" and so on. I became acutely aware of the issue of professionalism in terms of whom to leave in and whom to leave out when determining whether these therapies were real medicine. In fact, many were not. They may be therapeutic and may even be effective, but one unique therapy does not a system of medicine make.

It is a very sad state of affairs when Oriental medicine practitioners, who do have formal training, standards for educational requirements and practice a research-based medicine, will grasp at any straw they think will make them look more legitimate. So now we're willing to have ourselves called CAM practitioners. This watering down of our tradition, this caving in to allowing others to label us as "alternative," is how Oriental medicine will finally lose any vestige of reputability.

Oriental medicine is what it is - a complete system of medicine. It is not a complement; it's complete. It is an alternative in the true meaning of the word: a choice. People can choose to use allopathic medicine, they can choose to use Oriental medicine, or they can choose to use ozone therapy. I am proud to practice a system of medicine that is effective, that gives people back their lives, and that educates people about how to stay healthy.

Click here for previous articles by Martha Lucas, PhD, LAc.

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