91% of PCPs say Oriental medicine “somewhat effective,” survey finds

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published January 30, 2018

Key Takeaways

Nearly 9 in 10 primary care physicians (PCPs) say they’re interested in Oriental medicine, such as Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, according to a recent MDLinx survey.

In fact, our survey found that more than three in four PCPs have sent patients for acupuncture.

This nationwide survey, conducted in November 2017 by M3 Global Research, included responses from 100 primary care physicians, including those in general practice (n=36), family medicine (n=25), internal medicine (n=25), and primary care (n=14).

The “qi” to good health

Oriental medicine, also called traditional Chinese medicine, includes acupuncture, dietary therapy, herbal therapy, meditation, physical exercise (tai chi, qi gong), and therapeutic massage (tui na), according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Traditional Chinese medicine “is based on the belief that qi (the body’s vital energy) flows along meridians (channels) in the body and keeps a person’s spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health in balance,” as defined by the National Cancer Institute. “Traditional Chinese medicine aims to restore the body’s balance and harmony between the natural opposing forces of yin and yang, which can block qi and cause disease.”

Among respondents to the MDLinx survey, 89% reported being “somewhat interested” (52%) or “very interested” (37%) in Oriental medicine. Ten percent said they’re “not very interested,” and only 1% was “not at all interested.”

Respondents were also asked to describe the extent to which they think Oriental medicine or acupuncture is effective. As many as one in six physicians (17%) said Oriental medicine/acupuncture is as effective as modern Western medicine. Three of four (74%) respondents agreed it’s “somewhat effective,” while 8% said it’s “no better than a placebo.” Only 1% said it’s not at all effective.

On pins and needles

Given that 91% of respondents said Oriental medicine and acupuncture are at least somewhat effective, it’s no surprise that 76% of these physicians “routinely” (12%) or “sometimes” (64%) prescribe acupuncture or refer their patients for it.

People visit acupuncturists for a wide range of reasons, including stress, depression, knee/joint pain, rheumatoid arthritis, nausea, cancer pain, insomnia, and to quit smoking.

Western medicine researchers have studied acupuncture extensively. They’ve reported that this ancient practice is particularly helpful for relief of pain, particularly chronic pain.

“Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic musculoskeletal, headache, and osteoarthritis pain,” researchers reported in a recent meta-analysis published in The Journal of Pain.

“Treatment effects of acupuncture persist over time and cannot be explained solely in terms of placebo effects. Referral for a course of acupuncture treatment is a reasonable option for a patient with chronic pain,” advised the authors, who hailed from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY, and other centers.

Herbs haven’t taken root

Our survey respondents weren’t as aggressive in recommending traditional Chinese herbal medicines, which can include such substances as astragalus, ma-huang (ephedra), licorice root, cinnamon, ginseng, and salvia. Only 2% of respondents said they routinely prescribed Chinese herbs, while 36% reported prescribing them sometimes. The majority of respondents—57%—had never prescribed Chinese herbal medicines.

Chinese herbs have a mixed reputation in Western medicine. For example, the Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra in 2004 due to possible cardiovascular complications and risk of death. Although the ban doesn’t apply to traditional Chinese herbal remedies, the “reputation of ma-huang [ephedra] has been permanently damaged,” wrote Subhuti Dharmananda, PhD, director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, OR.

On the other hand, the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Youyou Tu, chief scientist, China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Beijing, China, for her work in developing artemisinin, a compound now used as the main treatment for malaria. She derived artemisinin from sweet wormwood, a common herb that's been prescribed in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years. 

“From our research experience in discovering artemisinin, we learned the strengths of both Chinese and Western medicine,” Tu said during her Nobel Prize address. “There is great potential for future advances if these strengths can be fully integrated.”

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