China’s civilisation, which spans more than 5,000 years, features a rich medical history. In the late 1500s the Chinese medical scholar Li Shizhen compiled the Compendium of Materia Medica, an extensive herbal medicine volume, which outlined how each item could be used to treat various diseases.
Today the medical branch, collectively known as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), is becoming increasingly relevant as the world fights the deadly spread of the coronavirus disease, Covid-19, which has infected some 31 million people worldwide.
In mainland China, doctors have been treating most patients with both Western and TCM drugs, which have shown promising results. In February, Gao Xiaojun, a spokesman for the Beijing Municipal Health Commission, said 92 per cent of patients in Beijing who have received the combined treatment have shown an improvement.
Hong Kong has also been using TCM to help Covid-19 patients. Since April, the city’s Hospital Authority has launched a special TCM outpatient programme for discharged patients. A maximum of 10 TCM general consultations will be provided to each patient at seven participating clinics within six months of their discharge from hospital.
The potential of TCM – and its contribution to medical knowledge – is also gaining international recognition. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) added TCM therapies to its global diagnostic compendium for the first time.
Hong Kong has long been a thriving centre for the modernisation and development of TCM, thanks to its role as a gateway between China and the West.
Its status as an international financial hub has also provided a favourable environment where the health care industry can raise funds. A growing list of empirical research studies and companies that have worked to modernise the discipline have also contributed to the city’s vibrant TCM scene.
Helping to fight Covid-19 pandemic
Albert Leung, a professor at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, who has more than two decades of experience, said one of TCM’s great strengths has been in disease prevention.
“TCM is already helpful even before you become sick,” he said. “During the Covid-19 outbreak, if you focus on keeping up your body’s immune system through taking TCM herbal formula, the risk of getting seriously ill will be significantly lower.”
In March, Leung launched a citywide project using TCM to help stop the elderly becoming infected with Covid-19. A registered practitioner has visited elderly centres and demonstrated how to prepare Chinese medicine soups to boost immunity.
Tips have also been given to the elderly to strengthen their health, including carrying out regular exercise such as the Chinese martial art of tai chi.
“TCM is especially helpful for the elderly population, because statistics show they have a higher fatality rate if they get infected by the coronavirus,” Leung said.
The project has received financial support from the Chinese Medicine Development Fund, a HK$500 million (US$64.5 million) dedicated fund set aside by the Hong Kong government in 2018 to facilitate the development of TCM and raise its standards. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the scheme has also helped TCM clinics upgrade their infection control facilities.
Research provides basis for collaboration
In recent years, a number of Hong Kong researchers’ empirical studies have been published in globally recognised medical journals, providing a basis for TCM’s closer collaboration with mainstream medicine.
Last August, a team of TCM experts at the University of Hong Kong found that TNTL, or Tangningtongluo – a herbal product derived from a traditional medicine used by China’s Miao people – could potentially reduce blood glucose levels and combat obesity-induced insulin resistance.
The pilot study, published in the global medical journal, Science Advances, suggested TCM’s potential in helping obese individuals reduce the risk of chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
Feng Yibin, lead researcher and acting director of the university’s School of Chinese Medicine, said further clinical trials have confirmed TNTL’s effectiveness, and helped standardise and manage the discipline.
“Modern TCM studies are focused on answering questions about the chemical properties and pharmaceutical effects of herbal medicine,” he said. “While TCM has a long history and may already be widely accepted across Asia, empirical evidence is needed to boost its global recognition.”
Western medicine may be mainstream, but traditional medicine, such as TCM, also had an important supplementary role in promoting health care, he said.
“Some mainstream cancer treatment methods – such as target therapy and immunotherapy – come with a lot of side effects, and TCM can help alleviate the side effects and boost their effectiveness,” Feng said.
TCM had also provided crucial alternative forms of treatment, he said. Arsenic trioxide, a highly toxic compound, was widely known to TCM before it was used in Western medicine to treat a specific type of leukaemia, or blood cancer.
Modern and accessible approach
Hong Kong’s TCM practitioners have also been leading efforts to make its knowledge more widely accessible.
One company promoting a more modern approach to TCM, particularly among younger people, is CheckCheckCin, or “to check first” in Cantonese. It operates six Hong Kong stores and produces a range of soup packs, rice water mocktails and herbal teas using TCM principles.
It also offers a smartphone health app that provides a database of recipes that are suited to each user’s body type, allowing busy people to make better health choices.
“Since I studied TCM, I have begun to see that many people have many common misconceptions about the theories and concepts of TCM,” Cinci Leung, who founded the company in late 2016, said.
While many people may want to make healthier choices in their everyday life, they often lacked the time to look up recipes or buy different herbal ingredients from traditional TCM clinics, she said.
“I believe that taste and healthiness can coexist, so I began to work with a mixologist to come up with delicious and healthy mocktails.”
One of her objectives has been to break down TCM principles into small and easily relatable titbits and ideas. “Our vision is to promote the benefits of health, wellness and a balanced body and mind through a TCM approach and preventive health concepts,” she said.
Other companies, such as PuraPharm, have been modernising and promoting TCM on the international stage. Founded in Hong Kong in 1998, the health care company produces a number of TCM therapeutic pill formulas for public and hospital use, which can treat a wide range of symptoms, such as diarrhea, dry throat and insomnia.
Besides selling its products globally, it also opened a TCM clinic in Australia in 2014 and another in Canada in 2016.
What’s next for TCM?
International health care companies are continuing to take advantage of Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub to raise funds for their expansion.
Figures released by the Hong Kong stock exchange in April showed that 28 biotech companies have launched their initial public offerings in the city since April 2018, raising a total of HK$82.5 billion (US$10.6 billion).
A number of recent initiatives aim to further promote TCM’s development in the city. The first Chinese medicine hospital will be located in Tseung Kwan O, the government said. It will serve as a flagship Chinese medicine institution for education and research, and foster exchanges between local and international traditional medicine groups.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong has also founded the city’s first Institute of Integrative Medicine to help strengthen the collaboration between TCM and Western medicine. The institute has been conducting interdisciplinary clinical research that leverages the wisdom of both disciplines.
Since 2017, the institute has launched Asia’s first TCM clinical evidence online portal, offering health care professionals easy access to study results. It has also developed a Chinese medicine course in English on the online learning platform, Coursera, which promotes basic TCM knowledge to the general public.