A Modern Physician’s View of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Today we profile Dr. Shelley Ochsa Beijing-based physician specializing in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Dr. Ochs is a longtime American expat with an impressive background. An Honors BA in Chinese Language and Literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which led to an MSc in Traditional Chinese Medicine from the American College of Chinese Medicine and a Ph.D. from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. She went on to teach, train, perform and of course practice at more prestigious institutions than my fingers and toes have, both in America and China. She currently practices at Beijing United Family and teaches at the Beijing Center for China Studies. However, his pedigree might be the least impressive thing about him. In the midst of her incredibly busy schedule, she found time to tell me about her fascinating life.

It’s unusual for a Westerner to practice TCM as a specialty, isn’t it? How did you find your way to this field?
I lived in Taiwan when I was 19 and the pollution was really affecting my lungs. I tried TCM and it broke the infection cycle. After this experience, I wanted to study it but I was told that it was too late and it would be impossible for me because most people start studying when they are children. A friend told me it was like saying I wanted to learn to be a pilot or a ballerina.

But I soon learned that there were 48 schools with TCM programs in the United States. Since I was relatively fluent in Chinese from my four years in Taiwan, I chose to complete a bachelor’s degree in Chinese literature and then move to San Francisco to study Chinese medicine in Chinese.

What did your parents think of this course?
They were just happy that I chose something that offered real-world job opportunities instead of just being able to go to college.

You are in a truly unique position to educate expats on TCM. What misconceptions do Westerners have about this?
There are two big ones I can think of. The first is that people mistakenly think that the effects of TCM are temporary, so if you stop the treatments your symptoms will return. But the opposite is true. The goal of TCM is to alter the balance of the body so that it can heal itself. We try to remove blockages and push the system so that your natural ability to heal is triggered and strengthened.

The other is the idea of ​​using endangered animals as medicine. While it was part of popular culture in the past, it is actually a prohibited practice now that is strictly regulated. In licensed hospitals and clinics in China, professional practitioners do not prescribe herbal medicines containing endangered species. The problem is the trade and the profits from the trade, which are mostly done through the black market in East and Southeast Asia.

You mentioned popular culture which is what most people associate with TCM. But Chinese medicine has a very long history. How has it evolved?
In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a lot of government support for TCM because it was what was readily available to most communities. But as more and more practitioners and facilities for biomedicine became available, people began to embrace Western medicine, and new forms of “integrated Chinese-Western medicine” emerged. In recent years, Chinese medicine has gained popularity as it is effective in treating ailments that many people in China currently suffer from, such as weight gain, hypertension, infertility, depression, anxiety and insomnia.

Both in China and other parts of the world, Chinese medicine is also used as a complementary therapy. For example, acupuncture and TCM herbal remedies can help reduce the side effects of chemotherapy.

We are also seeing a consumer desire for TCM in the West. The Cleveland Clinic recently caused a stir by bringing in a full-time TCM herbalist. Some hospitals in Australia, UK, Canada and USA have integrated acupuncture treatments or refer to TCM professionals.

Has modern science been able to explain why TCM works?
Clinical trials can assess the effectiveness of TCM treatments without knowing the underlying mechanisms of action in biomedical terms. You can compare treatment to placebo, or usual care (with biomedicine) to usual care plus, the plus being acupuncture or herbal medicine. But if we insist on explaining the effects in terms of modern biochemistry and physiology, we find that the answers are often elusive. We simply don’t use – or need – biomedical explanations for most of what we do. Traditional concepts of the body-mind complex and interventions based on it are not dependent on modern medicine. However, we also consider laboratory markers and modern diagnostics when evaluating patient outcomes.

There have been significant advances in the field of acupuncture. MRIs have revolutionized what we know about how the brain and central nervous system respond to acupuncture needles. The connections between traditional points on the body and the repeatable, consistent responses of the brain have convinced many former skeptics that it is a worthwhile practice.

However, exactly how the signals are conducted in the body remains an unanswered question. One of the most widely accepted hypotheses is that connective tissue is the primary medium.

Who normally comes to see you and what kind of conditions do you usually treat?
I tend to deal with around 70% expats and 30% locals, and that’s interesting because a lot of the issues people face are stress-induced. It’s just different stressors. Expats often need help dealing with the exhaustion, anxiety and insomnia brought on by the stress of moving to a new country. Residents are often referred for more serious issues like high blood pressure or seek help with infertility. They tend to deal with the stress of caring for elderly parents, young children, work, school, and money issues all at the same time.

The big health story in 2020/21 is obviously Covid. Does TCM have its place in the treatment of the pandemic?
In conjunction with modern medicine, yes. In fact, the combination in Hubei and elsewhere has been shown to lead to dramatically improved results. One of the things China has done to help curb the disease has been to treat close contacts and suspected cases, not just confirmed cases. Local clinics in Wuhan and large converted “shelter hospitals” offered TCM to more than 50,000 people. For example, in one hospital, TCM was used to treat approximately 400 patients with mild to moderate illness due to COVID-19 and none of these patients progressed to more severe illness. In other clinics where TCM was not used, the average progression rate was 6.5%.

In addition to being a doctor, teacher, translator and writer, you are also an expatriate mother. What are the benefits and challenges of raising a child from a third culture and what do you hope she takes away from this experience?
It’s interesting because my daughter is about to graduate from a public primary school where she is the only foreigner in her class. She has lived in China all her life and is fluent in Mandarin but holds a US passport. When asked where she comes from, she replies: “My mother is American, my father is Chinese and I was born in Beijing. It can be difficult to find a sense of belonging as a child from a third culture, but I want her to learn the social skills and resilience that will allow her to be comfortable anywhere in the world. She will go to an international high school where she can continue to be educated bilingually. I hope her upbringing gave her a strong sense of empathy and tolerance for others, while learning to cling to the core values ​​that I believe give meaning to life.

This blog originally appeared on our sister site, Jingkids International.

READ: Tong Ren Tang Cleverly Combines Espresso and MCT Herbs in Their Coffee

Photo: Shelley Ochs