The Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) market in China is estimated at a value of $40 billion, approximately a third of total sales in China’s pharmaceutical market. According to a study conducted in 1997, 95% of Chinese hospitals already have a TCM department in place. Some studies even concluded that roughly 80% of the population have used TCM before.

Nevertheless, despite the large number of patients who use TCM, relatively cheap over-the-counter (OTC) TCM made up the bulk of these sales. Official statistics reveal that healthcare provided by TCM centres increased only slightly from 14.3% to 15.7% from 2009 to 2015. Hospital doctors are reluctant to prescribe TCM given its lack of scientific evidence, poorly enforced regulation and stories of medication errors. All these factors cast doubt on the efficacy of TCM and hinder the development of TCM in China.

TCM: Obstacles faced in its pursuit of acceptance

The views of the people towards TCM appear to be on both extreme ends. On one hand, there are avid supporters of TCM amongst the public who thoroughly believe in its effectiveness.

"My family members are always telling me to stop wasting money on Chinese medicine and just go to a Western hospital to get real care," said Lu, a 60-year-old retired hospital accountant who lives in Shanghai. "But I don't care what they say. I know that it works."

On the other end, there is an arising skepticism towards the field, especially among the younger generation. The news of a young Chinese actress, who passed away in 2016 after choosing TCM over chemotherapy, has once again sparked a heated discussion between the use of TCM and western medications in the community.

In addition, gaining acceptance of the medical community is no walk in the park. Some point out it is a matter of profit margins.

"Doctors are often reluctant to use Chinese medicine because it's not lucrative. If a doctor can make 50 yuan from using TCM medicine and 100 yuan from Western medicine, of course they'll use Western," said Su Rui, an assistant researcher at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences.

Apart from considerations on the business end, most forms of TCM have not been subjected to the rigours of randomised controlled clinical trials. TCM practitioners are lacking clinical legitimacy to use the medications.

New law promises equal status granted to TCM and Western medicine

The new law sets to change the current mindset – by promising an equal status to both TCM and Western medicine. Through the new legislation, China tries to underscore its determination in ushering in a new era in TCM development. With the promotion by government, the TCM sector would hopefully acquire much needed financial and regulatory support for future research and development.

More importantly, the new laws aims to tighten quality control processes for TCM drug manufacturing by increasing penalties for violations in herb cultivation. This also enhances public’s confidence in using TCM.

“This law is very important for securing the status of TCM,” said Yiling Wu, chairman of Yiling Pharmaceutical. His company produces herbal TCM and has a market value to the tune of $3 billion. Wu, a strong proponent of TCM, has been trying to gain credibility for TCM by acquiring overseas approvals.

“The theory and recipe is TCM, but in practice the evaluation of our medicines is carried out according to western evidence-based methods,” Wu added. MIMS

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