South Korean TCM doctors wins over the skeptics

It's a novelty to see foreign TCM practitioners in China but South Korea's Hong Yuanshu has won the trust of the skeptical Chinese patients.

Foreign practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine are few in China. One notable exception is South Korean Hong Wonsook, the first of her nationality to get a traditional Chinese medicine license here.

Hong said she became interested in traditional medicine because of illnesses in her family.

"My father died of cancer, my brother was diagnosed with lung cancer and my sister was diagnosed with lupus, where the body's immune system attacks healthy body tissue," she said. "Western medical doctors said their conditions were hopeless, but I just couldn't give up on them. So I turned to traditional Chinese medicine."

Hong's brother is now a civil servant and her sister is living a normal life. Seeing the therapies work on her own family members steeled Hong's belief in traditional Chinese medicine, so she took up studies.

In 2002, Hong was the only foreigner to apply for undergraduate study in traditional Chinese medicine in China. Two decades on, she is practicing in China, winning over Chinese patients who were initially skeptical at first about a foreigner's skills.

"Many patients heard of me by word of mouth," she said. "They came to me on the recommendation of friends or relatives. Treating them is easier when they trust me. This is, of course, an honor for any doctor."

South Korean TCM doctors wins over the skeptics
Ti Gong

Building trust among patients

She said she thinks that trust was built on her willingness to listen to what patients had to say. No detail was too small in trying to diagnose their problems and the root causes.

"For South Koreans living in Shanghai, going to a hospital can be difficult if they don't get a sympathetic ear when trying to describe their symptoms," she said. "I also serve as a translator when the need arises."

After 24 years living in Shanghai, Hong speaks fluent Chinese. But in her first years as a student at the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the early 1990s, the going was tough.

"You could always find me in the library," she said. "Apart from eating, sleeping and grocery shopping, I never left the chair. The pages of my dictionary are well-worn from use. My lecturer had to do acupuncture on me because I was studying so hard that I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning."

But Hong was determined to succeed. She served as an apprentice in all the departments of Longhua Hospital Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine before choosing gastroenterology as her specialty. She now works in the Minhang Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital.

Hong was awarded Shanghai's Magnolia Award on September 6, the highest honor bestowed on foreigners working in Shanghai. The award cited her accomplishments in aiding the development of traditional Chinese medicine in China and South Korea.

"This award means a lot to me," she said. "It's a sign that I'm on the right path.

"I can't express enough my gratitude to the teachers in Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the university's affiliated Longhua Hospital and Shuguang Hospital, especially my mentor, Professor Ma Guitong, a famous TCM physician in Shanghai," said Hong. "They showed me a new world and they helped me to improve. They're the biggest asset of my life."

Traditional medicine has been on decline for decades in China. Many Chinese have come to question its effectiveness and its basis in scientific principles.

For example, there is no reference in traditional medicine to body neurons, relying instead on the life force called qi. That unsettles those wedded to modern science and has left the impression with some that traditional medicine is inferior to Western medical practices.

And the fact that "Huangdi Neijing," or "The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine," a doctrine written over two millennia ago, is still used as a fundamental text for students suggests that the development of traditional medicine is frozen in time.

"It's a matter of perspectives," said Hong. "If you want to see the whole picture, you need to see both sides. They are different systems of medicines with alternative ways of treatment. Both are effective and well-based."

Integrating the East and West

But, she added, "You can't use the principles of Western medicine to judge traditional Chinese medicine."

A Western doctor suggested one of her patients undergo surgery to remove a lump, said Hong, but she applied a herbal ointment for two weeks, the lump disappeared.

"Traditional Chinese medicine has absorbed and learned from Western medicine," she said. "I think the next step will be integrating the best aspects of both. However, it's clear that traditional medicine is struggling to overcome popular skepticism here and in Asia."

She added, "In Japan, Western-style doctors can prescribe herbs. I'd say 95 percent of South Koreans rely on Western medical treatments, compared to about 80 percent in China."

Hong cites the widespread belief that anything and everything from the West is superior.

The Chinese government enacted a law this year in an attempt to revive traditional medicine. It requires local governments to set up traditional medicine departments in all medical centers, and it increased funding for development and education.

"In recent years, efforts have been made to promote traditional culture so that people regain confidence in the tried and true ways of the past," said Hong. "This trend happened in Korea first. Now I'm seeing it in China.

"I wish to promote the communication and exchange between Chinese traditional medicine and South Korean traditional medicine, so that more patients can benefit, " said Hong. "And I wish to do my bit in bringing Chinese traditional medicine to the world."

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