Article on traditional Chinese medicine
Ng Ek Heng -
Offering the best of east-west medicine
At the age of 37, Singaporean Dr Swee Yong Peng is breaking new grounds in medical practice with his double qualifications in western and Chinese medicine.
For his patients, this combination of western and Chinese medical knowledge can only spell good news but it has required much sacrifice from Yong Peng. He holds a MBBS degree from National University of Singapore and is believed to be the first Singaporean doctor licensed to practice as a Chinese physician. He spent five years studying on part-time basis to get his Diploma in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Says Yong Peng: “My career as a doctor takes up to half a day, and I devote up to a third of the time thereafter to promote TCM.” Currently, he is Chief Operating Officer with the Emergency Unit of Parkway Group Healthcare, which has interests in three private hospitals in Singapore. After work, he volunteers his time to give lectures on Chinese herbs and offer his services as a Chinese physician.
He has long had an interest in TCM because “it works”. Since becoming a doctor in 1989, contacts with patients who believe in Chinese medicine only served to heighten his interest. Adds Yong Peng: “There are patients who see both doctors and Chinese physicians for various ailments. But they don’t tell their doctors they are also taking Chinese herbs and vice versa. By taking the initiative to understand TCM, I will be in better position to help them.”
Subsequently, he signed up for the part-time course with the Singapore College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The college was set up by the Singapore Chinese Physicians Association to promote TCM. In addition to operating a free clinic staffed by volunteer Chinese physicians, the association also funds two research institutes – one focusing on Chinese medicine and drugs, and the other on Chinese acupuncture.
Perseverance and personal sacrifices have been the key in Yong Peng’s goal to be a new breed of doctor with expertise in east-west medicine. Effectively bi-lingual, Yong Peng says his Chinese improved as a result of the TCM course. “It helps to know the language although I understand foreign students in training colleges in China do get by with the help of English translation.”
As a local pioneer, he had to overcome the divide that exists between practitioners of western and Chinese medicine. He says: “I did not tell my other doctor colleagues about the TCM course, and I did not tell my course-mates about my medical background.”
However, all that is water under the bridge as he now awaiting word from China where he is preparing to pursue a Master’s degree in TCM. It will require him to take two months off from his work each year. For his thesis, he is proposing to do a two-year study combining ‘east-west treatment’. He will do research on two groups of patients with coronary heart disease and hypertension. All participants will be treated using western medication and Chinese herbs will be added for half of the group. This will be a scientifically-based study on the benefits and attributes of east-west treatment.
How has his understanding of TCM added to his perspective as a western-trained doctor?
“It is not good to limit ourselves when the potential exists to combine knowledge and offer patients the best from the two forms of treatment,” says Yong Peng.
He says there may be some ambiguity with TCM but it is not as mystifying. The TCM diploma has imparted to him the fundamentals on ancient studies, diagnosis of diseases the TCM way and the basics of herbs and prescriptions, as well as internal medicine, acupuncture and massage.
As western medicine is based on determining the cause of a disease and TCM is rooted on recognizing and treating the symptoms, the two approaches complement one another.
Adds Yong Peng: “In diagnosis and treatment, each approach may have its limitations. The good thing in practicing east-west medicine is that we can use the combined knowledge to overcome any shortcomings for each field of medicine,” he adds.
Giving an example he says that constant thirst is a side-effect of chemotherapy for which no remedy exists in western medical practice. But certain herbs do provide relief for such patients.
He emphasises that patients are at risk when they take western drugs and Chinese herbs without informing their doctors or Chinese physicians. Taking the pulse is one parameter in the TCM diagnostic process, but the result can be misleading if a patient is prescribed beta blockers, which slow the pulse rate, but chooses not to inform the Chinese physician.
The knowledge gained from his double qualifications in medicine allows him to use different approaches in looking at a health problem. “There is never one side to a coin,” says Yong Peng. “Chances are there are more than two sides to the coin.”
He highlights the analogy where diagnosis using TCM methods may point to a patient having some blood deficiency. This diagnosis can be combined with western medical practice using laboratory analysis of blood samples to rule out renal failure, he adds. There is also scope for more effective treatment using a combination of drugs and herbs as the knowledge base grows for east-west medicine.
Today, he feels he is able to connect better with patients and brief them using knowledge from western and eastern medical perspectives in his clinical sessions.
He says: “I hope in time to come there will be wider acceptance and greater sharing of knowledge between practitioners in the two medical fields. Afterall, TCM is progressive, as evidenced by new formulations for herbs in research work by practitioners of Chinese medicine.” There have also been press reports of local government as well as private hospitals carrying out research on acupuncture therapy which points to the TCM gaining a foothold in mainstream medicine.