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The Wonder Pill

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Frontiers Profile: Ted Kaptchuk 4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

How are modern medicine and East Asian medicine similar?

They both try to take care of people; they both try to help people. They both use rational ideas - they don't use altered states of consciousness. They try to assess the situation using cognitive processes and they try to interpret what the situation is caused by. Then, they use material intervention - acupuncture or surgery or drugs. Both believe that the doctor/patient relationship is very important.

Photo of Chinese medicine drawing
Kaptchuk practices acupuncture with success, but is it the needles or the ritual that helps his patients heal?

There are some inherent requirements of Chinese medicine that make a better doctor/patient relationship. You never want to treat just the finger or just the toe. You have to treat the person wherever the complaint resides. At that level, there is automatically a more integrated doctor/patient relationship. You're required to know about the person. It's not a conscious emphasis on the doctor/patient relationship, but it's part of the system that there's a more holistic approach.

How else would you say Chinese medicine is different from Western?

In modern medicine, you measure and isolate something, give it a precise numerical equivalent, quantify it. And East Asian medicine looks to the quality of the patient. It's a more artistic approach.

Modern medicine tries to quantify and privileges causality based on the smallest piece that you can reduce the question to. If you can find the germ, or the gene, or the metabolic chemistry, that's what they look for.

I believe it is never too late. I never did anything with science until 1999-2000, and I'm on PBS now!


The direction of Chinese medicine is the exact opposite.The emphasis is the context of the complaint. It's more macroscopic. What kind of patient is this? How does this person behave in his or her everyday life? In work life? What are their feelings and their sensibilities and their beliefs? If you have an eye problem, they ask you about your knees. If you have a knee problem, they ask you about your digestion. You can't interpret the knee unless you know how the person gets angry or doesn't get angry. Or how the person likes certain types of food, but not others.

To put it a different way, modern medicine is quantitative and traditional Chinese medicine is qualitative.

Hippocratic medicine was very similar to Chinese medicine, with the four humors and the four elements, and you balance them. Hippocrates didn't treat people; he treated the weather condition the person was in. If the person was bilious, that means that they were like a hot summer day and they were agitated and that's the issue that you had to treat no matter where the complaint was. If someone was phlegmatic, they were cold and lazy and didn't move around a lot and no matter what the complaint was - knees, eyes or digestion - you treated that quality. That's the same as Chinese medicine.

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