Ancient Remedies for Modern Lives

6 Lessons From Eastern Chinese Medicine

A version of this article was initially published on Dr. Leana Wen’s blog The Doctor Is Listening.

**Meet Dr. Leana Wen at Emperor’s College on Tuesday, March 5th, 12:30 – 1:30pm in Room E/F. To RSVP click here.**

By Leana Wen, M.D.

As a child growing up in China, I was always aware of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM is what we refer to as Eastern medicine, in contrast to the Western medicine we know from U.S. hospitals. I never understood much about TCM, only that it somehow involves herbs and that many Chinese people used it. The more I progressed in my medical training in major U.S. academic centers, the more distanced I felt from TCM. Why should I learn about something that lacks evidence, when there’s so much to know about for which there is good research?

Last fall, I went to China on a research trip. While my study is primarily on its Western medical system, I was so fascinated by what I learned of Eastern medicine that I spent many free evenings observing TCM practitioners. There is so much I didn’t know. As a discipline, TCM is far too complex for me to understand in my short observation, but there are some very important “lessons from the East” that are applicable to our Western medical practice:

#1. Listen—really listen

Dr. Leana Wen

Leana Wen, MD

The first TCM practitioner I shadowed explained to me that to practice TCM is to “listen with your whole body”. Pay attention and use every sense you have, he said. I watched this doctor as he diagnosed a woman with new-onset cervical cancer and severe anemia the moment she walked into his exam room, and within two minutes, without blood tests or CTs, sent her to be admitted to a (Western) medical service. I’ve seen expert clinicians make remarkable diagnoses, but this was something else!

“How could you know what you had and that she needed to be admitted?” I asked.

“I smelled the cervical cancer,” he said. “I looked and saw the anemia. I heard her speak and I knew she could not care for herself at home.” (I followed her records in the hospital; he was right on all accounts.)

#2. Focus on the diagnosis

I watched another TCM doctor patiently explain to a young woman with long-standing abdominal pain why painkillers were not the answer.

“Why should we treat you for something if we don’t know what it is?” he said. “Let’s find out the diagnosis first.” What an important lesson for us—to always begin the diagnosis.

#3. Treat the whole person

“A big difference between our two practices,” said one TCM doctor, “Is that Western medicine treats people as organs. Eastern medicine treats people as a whole.” Indeed, I watched her inquire about family, diet, and life stressors. She counseled on issues of family planning, food safety, and managing debt. She even helped patients who needed advice on caring for the their elderly parents and choosing schools for their child. This is truly “whole person” care!

#4. Health is not just about disease, but also about wellness

There is a term in Chinese that does not have its exact equivalent in English. The closest translation is probably “tune-up to remain in balance”, but it doesn’t do the term justice, because it refers to maintaining and promoting wellness. Many choose to see a TCM doctor not because they are ill, but because they want to be well. They believe TCM helps them keep in balance. It’s an important lesson for doctors and patients alike to address wellness and prevention.

#5. Medicine is a life-long practice

Western medicine revers the newest as the best; in contrast, patients revere old TCM doctors for their knowledge and experience. Practicing doctors do not rest on their laurels.

“This is a practice that has taken thousands of years to develop,” I was told. “That’s why you must keep learning throughout your life, and even then you will only learn just a small fraction.” Western medicine should be no different: not only are there new medical advances all the time, doctors need to continually improve their skills in the art of medicine.

#6. Evidence is in the eyes of the beholder

Evidence-based medicine was my mantra in Western medical training, so I was highly skeptical of the anecdotes I heard. But then I met so many patients who said that they were able to get relief from Eastern remedies while Western treatments failed them. Could there be a placebo effect? Sure. Is research important? Of course. But research is done on populations, and our treatment is of individuals. It has taken me a while to accept that I may not always be able to explain why—but that the care should be for the individual patient, not a population of patients.

“In a way, there is more evidence for our type of medicine than for yours,” a TCM teacher told me. “We have four thousand years of experience—that must count for something!”

There is so much I have not covered about TCM. Its practices vary regionally, and no doubt, there are more and less capable practitioners (as there are in Western medicine). More research into TCM methods will be important. However, regardless of whether we Western doctors want to prescribe TCM treatments, we should recognize there is much to learn from Eastern medicine, including what it means to be a physician to really care for our patients. Upon my return from China, I, for one, have a new-found appreciation for Eastern medical practice a renewed understanding of holistic medical care.

For more on holistic practice and the importance of partnership, please read my new book, When Doctors Don’t Listen.

Dr. Leana S. Wen, M.D., is an emergency physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital and a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of the new book, When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests. For more information, visit her blog The Doctor is Listening or her website. You can also follow her on Twitter at @DrLeanaWen.

**Meet Dr. Leana Wen at Emperor’s College on Tuesday, March 5th, 12:30 – 1:30pm in Room E/F. To RSVP click here.**

Photos courtesy of Dr. Leana Wen.


  1. I had my first tx from a TCM doctor today- just lucked out with a discount group coupon! The first three acupuncturists I had been to couldn’t hold a candle to this doctor- instead of leaving me alone and “letting it work” after putting the needles in, he taught me about the 5 elements on the dry erase board next to the warm treatment table. He had already checked my tongue, visually inspected me and commented on my skin, and, of course, checked my pulses. As an energy worker myself, I was totally excited!! As a person with a very rare immune disease, I felt relieved. As a person on disability and Medicaid, I wished Acupuncture was covered. I feel like I’m home :)

    • Thanks for sharing your experience with a traditional Chinese medicine treatment, Katey! That’s wonderful to hear. Yes, we agree. The next step will be for health insurances to cover acupuncture and Oriental medicine. Starting in 2014, health insurance plans will cover acupuncture treatments for individuals and small businesses in California, and we hope other US States follow suit:

  2. What a fantastic post is this about TCM. I have heard a lot before about TCM, but I will definitely tell people about your blog post.

    Speaking for myself: I run a company about antacids maagzuurremmers and see that Western doctors subscribe medications much too fast. They just look for the symptoms and immediately subscribe the medications. Instead of first looking for the causes.

    I think that you can make a good match between the Eastern and Western medicine. Maybe you can start your own hospital in future… I don’t know… Start with good research and keep posting blogs!

    Good luck!

    • Thanks for your nice comment, Kees! Yes, there’s more work to do to truly integrate Eastern and Western medicine, and Emperor’s College will continue to pave the way for more integration. Good luck to you and your company!

  3. this is such a fun post. I study acupuncture and feel more positive about taking notice of things, being receptive and observant. It seems that this practice is important. Thank you for your post. :)

  4. This website was… how do I say it? Relevant! Finally I have found something which helped me. Kudos!

  5. In fact a great publish. Congrats my good friend!