Chinese Medicine As Now Practiced

In America, I often hear praise for “Chinese Medicine”. By this they mean Traditional Chinese Medicine, which includes acupuncture and techniques that harness hormesis. I tend to agree. Medicine as now practiced in China is a different story.

Last night, I had dinner with some of my students. I asked them what their parents thought of their decision to major in psychology. One of them had a surprising answer. Her mom was happy that she was majoring in psychology because among the required courses was a human anatomy and physiology class. If her daughter took this class, her mom believed, it would be harder for doctors to cheat us.

Chinese doctors “cheating” patients is a big problem, in other words. They prescribe drugs that don’t work, said my student, and perform useless surgeries. Little different than Western medicine, except perhaps the drugs are less dangerous. Just as in Western medicine, drug reps try to bribe doctors to request their drugs. Unlike Western medicine, doctors steal the drugs of hospitalized patients, my student said, which they then sell. After a friend of mine was badly burned, she had (wisely) turned down the recommendation of a skin transplant. This angered her doctor, who would have made money from the operation. Later, when he changed her bandages, he did so roughly, which was very painful. Revenge.

“Don’t see the doctors at Tsinghua hospital [the campus hospital],” said my student. She had had a bad experience. She had gotten injured and gone to the hospital. She had had to wait half an hour to see a doctor; who had taken a mere 30 seconds to prescribe a cream that did almost nothing. That evening I watched The Poseidon Adventure. A doctor visits a sick woman in bed in her cabin. After a long wait, he gives her cursory treatment.

HUSBAND (to doctor) Hold it, hold it. You mean to tell me we had to wait all this time just for you to come in here and kiss her off with a couple of pills and some crap about staying in bed? How do you know she’s just seasick? Look at her! It could be something else! You didn’t even examine her.

Same complaint.

8 Responses to “Chinese Medicine As Now Practiced”

  1. Jim Purdy Says:

    If you get sick, will you go to the campus hospital?

    I enjoyed the Poseidon adventure. Did you watch the original 1972 Poseidon Adventure with Hackman and Borgnine, or the remake? Did you have any difficulty getting it in China? And how did you like it?

  2. Shawn Says:

    I like setups like the Mayo clinic where doctors are paid a straight competitive salary. Private practice & medicine do not go together.

  3. Tim Beneke Says:

    A pretty horrifying picture of Chinese doctors! Is this just a reflection of mass corruption among Chinese authorities? Did you post research finding that more than half of Tsinghua professors fabricate or falsify data?

    One point: My understanding is that the experiments with “sham” acupuncture where you don’t actually let the needles enter the skin but the person feels a bit of pinching finally offered a control. The research strongly shows that whatever is giving the (rather small) positive effects of acupuncture, it’s not the needles puncturing the skin, since sham acupuncture got effects as good as the real thing. It is clear that people get some relaxation from acupuncture, most likely an endorphin rush from the needles, and that this can be taken away by an endorphin blocker, Naltrexone.

  4. Chris U Says:

    Seth,
    What you seem to be describing is Western-style medicine being practiced in China. Usually when referring to ‘Chinese medicine’ one means ‘Traditional’ Chinese medicine (TCM) which is the use of herbs, acupuncture, tuina massage and moxibustion, but primarily herbs. Chinese herbal medicine has been developed over more than 2000 years and is an awesome form of medicine when practiced by a qualified practitioner. My understanding is that although herbalism is practiced in some hospitals, the primary mode of health care in China is the Western style allopathic medicine and that TCM is a struggling if not dying modality.

    I’m not surprised that your story paints a poor picture of the Chinese medical ‘system’. I hope that readers don’t associate this negatively with TCM.

  5. Seth Roberts Says:

    Chris, that’s a good point — distintinguishing TCM from what I describe. I have changed the post to reflect it.

  6. Seth Roberts Says:

    Tim, I do not remember posting “research finding that more than half of Tsinghua professors fabricate or falsify data.” On the other hand, the same student who told me about bad Chinese doctors has two university professors as parents. Her parents told her not to become a professor because of the “darkness” of Chinese academia. The big problem, said her parents, was what you say: fabrication and falsification of data, including plagiarism.

    A recent paper by John Ioannidis and a Chinese co-author likewise suggested a large problem with data fabrication among papers from China.

  7. Adam Says:

    I have had some experience with the medical system here in China. I work in a small international hospital in Shanghai which is clean and modern, but quite expensive. The standards we follow are often much higher than the standards imposed by the Chinese govt.

    On vacation in Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan / ??) my girlfriend came down with pneumonia. We ended up going to a local, Chinese hospital. The doctor told her she would have to stay overnight in the hospital for 14 days while getting IV antibiotics. As a pharmacist trained in the US, I knew this was absolutely not true. In the US, she could easily receive oral antibiotics and be treated on an outpatient basis. Due to the language barrier, I had a hard time communicating this to the doctor, but the doctor apparently said something to the effect of, the drugs in China are not the same as the drugs in the US, we have to use IV here.

    I don’t believe this at all. I asked one of my co-workers, who is also a pharmacist and whose mother works for a local hospital in Shanghai. She said doctors will try to get any patients they can to stay overnight in the hospital and to get IV fluids and/or antibiotics, because they make “grey money”. I’m not sure exactly what she meant by that, but it sounds to me like a case of doctors’ greed influencing their treatment of patients, leading them to choose unnecessary and inconvenient treatments over equally effective and convenient ones.

    Staying overnight in a Chinese hospital is about the last thing anyone would want to do. Many of the patients are not well educated and will spit on the floor and smoke in the beds right next to you. In the hospital we visited, there were people vomiting into trashcans and no cleaning service to tidy it up afterward. I witnessed an old man pull his IV out by accident and get blood all over the floor. It was there for at least 2 hours. I never saw anyone come to clean it up.

    We ended up gritting our teeth and coming in once a day for about 10 days to get IV antibiotics. We eventually managed to purchase some oral antibiotics (without a prescription) at a local pharmacy outside the hospital. My girlfriend’s pneumonia cleared up and we haven’t had any problems since.

  8. Seth Roberts Says:

    Thanks, Adam. Your account of your experience is very helpful.