A student and professor at the New York College of Traditional Chinese Medicine discuss the clinical applications of Eastern herbs. Image: NYCTCM.

Asian Medical Practices Increasingly Sought By US Patients and Doctors

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The term "Eastern medicine" embraces a wide range of ancient therapeutic practices and herbal remedies, from acupuncture in China to yoga in India to the hormone-regulating Crila plant from Vietnam. These so-called “naturopathic” approaches account for a nontrivial proportion of the US medical industry: in 2007, Americans doled out $33.9 billion for alternative medicinal supplies, classes, and professional consultations. More recent data is not yet available, but statisticians predict a steady rise in naturopathic expenditures over the next few years.

Naturopathy has a short but appreciable history of federal investment in the US. President Clinton founded the Office of Alternative Medicine in 1992, which later evolved into the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). The NCCAM was incorporated into the National Institutes of Health in 1998, with a Congressional budget of $48.9 million; this endowment grew to $130 million by 2012. Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is even implicitly endorsed by Obamacare: Section 2706 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act forbids discrimination against state-licensed healthcare providers, regardless of whether they subscribe to alleopathic (“Western”) or homeopathic (“Eastern”) methods.

The most recent official study of CAM in the US reported that 38% of American adults utilized some form of traditional remedy in 2007. The most avid patrons of CAM therapies that year were American Indians and Alaska natives (50.3% of whom opted for naturopathic treatment), followed by Caucasians (43.1%), then Asian Americans (39.9%), and finally, Blacks and Hispanics (25.5% and 23.7%, respectively). Over 42% of US hospitals offered CAM treatment options as of 2011. The Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine currently recognizes 65 CAM-equipped healthcare providers, including top-ranked medical schools like Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, UPenn, and Stanford. Nine doctoral programs and 63 masters programs in Complementary and Alternative Medicine are endorsed by the American Association of Oriental Medicine, with eleven more pending approval.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is perhaps the most widely practiced form of alternative therapy in the United States, with an estimated 27,000 licensed TCM specialists nationwide. As of 2012, China’s third largest export destination for TCM products and expertise was the United States, behind Japan and Hong Kong. Some American TCM practitioners are also cultivating herbs locally in order to cut costs and reduce the risks of contamination. Last year, TCM practitioners from all over the world gathered in San Francisco for the 10th World Congress of Chinese Medicine.

In addition to Chinese remedies, Americans are also exploring a number of other traditional treatments of Asian provenance. For instance, in 2011, a Tibetan expat partnered with the University of Virginia (UVa) School of Medicine and the UVa Contemplative Sciences Center to launch Arura Medicine of Tibet in Charlottesville, VA. The Japanese tradition of Kampo – a modified form of TCM focusing primarily on herbal antidotes – has been evaluated in clinical Hepatitis C trials at the New York Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center. The 3000-year-old Indian practice of Ayurveda – which combines meditation, herbal supplements, and highly customized diet and exercise regimens – commands a small but growing American clientele (around 200,000 individuals in 2007). Interest is particularly keen in California, where the National Ayurvedic Medical Association is headquartered.

Olivia Waring is a graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities and a Research Intern at the East West Center in Washington DC.