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A Dose of Law
China's first TCM law comes into effect to curb quacks and malpractices
By Xia Yuanyuan | NO. 32 AUGUST 10, 2017

A veteran traditional Chinese medicine doctor performs a massage for a patient at a hospital in Hefei, Anhui Province, on July 15 (XINHUA)

An elderly woman recently caused a major uproar across China. Liu Hongbin, a self-proclaimed traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) expert, was regularly seen in various television advertisements for medical products. On Tibet TV, she claimed to have inherited knowledge of traditional medicine practiced by the Miao ethnic group, professing to be an expert in curing coughs and asthma. On Gansu TV, she said she had a prescription to treat rheumatism, and on other TV programs, she presented herself as a traditional Mongolian medicine expert and a Peking University graduate.

However, it was discovered that she is not a qualified TCM practitioner and the products she endorsed in TV programs were actually fake.

The exposure stirred up a public backlash. Now, through the Law on TCM, which went into effect on July 1, measures have been taken to strengthen regulated development of TCM. There will be no market for people like Liu.

"The TCM legislation is a milestone for the industry's development. More matching policies and regulations will follow to boost TCM," said Wang Guoqiang, head of the State Administration of TCM.

Regulated by law

Acupuncture, massages, medicinal herbs, dietary therapy and qigong exercises, these are people's impression of TCM. As a representative feature of Chinese civilization, it is a medical science that has been part of daily life combating diseases for thousands of years.

In 2015, Tu Youyou, who spent her entire career researching TCM, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for using artemisinin to treat malaria, which shows the significance of TCM.

TCM is widely accepted by the Chinese and plays an important role in disease prevention and treatment. However, there was no specific law regulating its development. As a result, many self-proclaimed but unqualified TCM experts like Liu emerged to sell their products, seeking profit while ignoring people's health. This phenomenon is now prohibited by the Law on TCM, as every TCM practitioner is required to get a license.

According to Article 15 of the law, persons who provide TCM services must first pass the TCM physician qualification test and register their practice.

The law reaffirms the important role of TCM in the country's healthcare system. It says China will give equal importance to traditional Chinese and Western medicines, and encourage these two sciences to complement each other.

"The new law shows that the Chinese Government has put Chinese medicinal science and technology in an important position," said Xu Nanping, Vice Minister of Science and Technology.

The law also requires comprehensive hospitals and maternity and child care institutions run by the government as well as specialized hospitals, community health service centers and township health centers to have TCM departments and clinics. Social capital is being encouraged to support the development of TCM; and private investors, to establish TCM healthcare institutions.

According to a white paper on the development of TCM issued by the State Council Information Office in December 2016, at the end of 2015, there were 3,966 TCM hospitals and 42,528 TCM clinics across the country with 452,000 practitioners and assistant practitioners. There were 910 million visits that year to TCM treatment and health service units.

Better supervision

Lin Tao, a senior doctor who has his own TCM clinic in Beijing, felt disappointed by the scandal surrounding Liu. "It seriously damaged the reputation of TCM. The behavior deceived patients and also damaged patients' trust in TCM and us practitioners," he said.

To standardize the TCM industry, the law is helping expose fake TCM doctors who boast they can cure all manner of diseases.

Article 46 of the law states that all activities promoting and popularizing TCM culture and knowledge should comply with relevant laws. No organization or individual is allowed to seek illegal gains in the name of TCM. TCM products and services can be advertised only with the approval of the local TCM authorities.

"The law is a protective umbrella for both patients and the TCM industry. It is helpful in its future development," Lin said.

To safeguard consumers' rights, the law calls for strengthened management and quality control of TCM raw materials and related procedures, including medicinal herb planting, collecting and stocking. Toxic pesticides cannot be used to cultivate medicinal herbs.

Pharmacists weigh medical herbs at a traditional Chinese medicine pharmacy in Shexian County, Hebei Province, in December 2016 (XINHUA)

TCM education

Another highlight of the law is its emphasis on cultivating TCM practitioners, especially through systematic education in universities. The law stipulates that efforts should be made to improve the school education system of TCM by supporting the development of universities and vocational schools specializing in TCM education and other related educational institutions.

According to a white paper on TCM, at the end of 2015, TCM students numbered 752,000 in Chinese universities.

Besides graduates from TCM universities and vocational schools, there is a special group of TCM practitioners whose problems should also be addressed.

There are many TCM practitioners who learn the science from senior TCM practitioners in clinics rather than studying the discipline at universities. So they don't have a license to practice TCM though they have medical skills through years of practice.

According to the law, these practitioners can get an opportunity to qualify as licensed physicians. The new law stipulates that these practitioners must pass exams focusing on practical skills and treatment outcomes by provincial-level TCM authorities, and obtain recommendations from two certified practitioners before getting a license.

"Talented people are the foundation for promoting the development of TCM," said Wang, who is also vice minister of the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

Copyedited by Francisco Little

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