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Chinese medicine in the BMJ

The BMJ for 19 August is devoted to Chinese medicine. It includes a paper on traditional medicine and looks at the question: is the current Western model of research, which depends on trying out unknown treatments in animals, suitable for treatments that have been used for a long time on humans?

Jin-Ling Tang, who is a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that the entire traditional Chinese research is in disarray. It is directed towards trying to understand the mechanisms of action of the medicines, whereas it would be better to concentrate on efficacy. After all, there is no point in trying to identify active substances in a preparation if it doesn't actually work.

Belief in the efficacy of traditional medicines is based on a long history of use, faith, popularity, and anecdotes. Some, such as the antimalarial Qinghao, undoubtedly do work, but that does not mean that all do.

From the ethical point of view it is not necessary to start with animal studies because the medicines are already in wide use by humans.

Advocates of traditional Chinese medicine say that there is no need for research into efficacy because they already know that it works. Critics, in contrast, say that it is all quackery so research would be a waste of time. The truth, Tang thinks, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Although this article is about Chinese traditional medicine, the same comments apply to Western complementary or alternative treatments such as homeopathy.

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