Incorporating Chinese medicine into local healthcare — a lesson from the pandemic
Authors: Dr. Pamela Tin, Head of Healthcare and Social Development, Our Hong Kong Foundation, and Amy Liu, Columnist
During the Omicron-wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, over a staggering million global cases were recorded with more than thousands of lives claimed by the virus. The pressure due to hospitaliszations and mortality pushed Western medicine-based healthcare systems to the brink. Nonetheless, Hong Kong’s health system was rescued during this critical juncture by community-based Chinese medicine practitioners who offered pro bono telehealth consultations, medicine, and medicine delivery. The community’s enthusiastic sharing of Chinese medical information via smartphones also demonstrated Chinese medicine’s key role in fighting the virus.
Mainland China has abundant experience in using Chinese medicine to fight COVID-19. The use of Chinese medicine was adopted and proven highly effective in early 2020 when Wuhan noted its first COVID-19 cases. Yet in Hong Kong, Chinese medicine was only given due consideration when the Western-medicine healthcare system became overwhelmed. Nevertheless, during the COVID-19 fifth wave, traditional Chinese medicine came into its own in Hong Kong.
Medical consultation demand surged amid the epidemic, overwhelming local hospitals. During this time, infected patients were only able to receive hospital-based treatment after exhibiting severe symptoms, such as high fever and breathing difficulties. Patients with a cough, sore throat, low-grade fever, and limb weakness – otherwise deemed mild cases - were in instances challenged by limited medical guidance. Additionally, countless Covid-19 patients were impacted by the sudden shortage of Western anti-fever medications, but benefitted from a large donation of anti-epidemic Chinese medicines by the Central Government. Chinese medicines, such as Lianhua Qingwen Jiaonang and Jinhua Qinggan Keli, are known to offer the medical benefits of clearing heat and toxins, and alleviating symptoms such as sore throats and fever. Patients who used these medications reported experiencing notable change in their condition, showcasing the positive effect of Chinese medicine.
Central to the benefits of Chinese medicine was its role in protecting the vulnerable older population. Prior to the fifth wave, the local elderly vaccination rate was abysmally low and many seniors faced serious health conditions. Among the 9,000-plus deaths, more than 70 percent were aged 80 or above. Fortunately, many elderly patients used Chinese medicine during the COVID-19 fifth wave and saw a significant difference. According to a study conducted at an elderly home by the Hong Kong Alliance of Integrated Medicine Against Covid, Jinhua Qinggan Keli effectively relieved many senior patients’ ailments, including sore throat. None of the 69 patients who took this medicine died or progressed to acute stages, but on the contrary, three elderly patients who did not use Chinese medicine progressed to acute care, with two passing away.
Chinese medicine treatment is widely recognised
In 2021, the Hospital Authority began the innovative use of Chinese-Western medicine treatments for Covid-19 at the Asia World-Expo treatment facility. Many medical staff from Mainland China came to Hong Kong’s aid during the fifth wave, bringing their expertise during our time of medical need. Concurrently, the HKSAR Government also stepped-up support for Chinese medicine, creating approximately 1,200 hospital bed spaces at the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal treatment facility, which took in several dozens of elderly patients from residential care homes for integrated Chinese and Western medicine treatment. Geriatricians and Chinese medicine practitioners at the centre examined patients together for a more seamless isolation, treatment, and recovery process with promising results.
The positive impact of Chinese medicine has increasingly attracted global attention. In early 2022, the WHO convened an Expert Meeting on Evaluation of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the Treatment of COVID-19, centring on the contribution of Chinese medicine in combating the pandemic. Most notably, the Meeting report recognised the effectiveness of Chinese medicine in reducing the proportion of mild and moderate cases progressing to severe cases, shortening viral clearance time, and improving clinical prognosis. The Meeting report also encouraged Member States to consider integrating Chinese and Western medicine for effective management of the current outbreak and for use in future pandemic preparedness.
Previously, the use of Chinese medicine in COVID-19 treatment was dismissed by some citizens as unscientific. At the same time that many Hongkongers personally experienced the benefits of Chinese medicine, its positive impact has gained global recognition. Moving forward, Mainland Chinese medicine experts can offer new insights into Hong Kong’s integration of Chinese and Western medicine, including how to optimize treatment and streamline integrated medical consultations for more effective application. Additionally, Chinese medicine has been positioned to can play a vital role in nursing long COVID patients back to health.
As former Chief Executive Carrie Lam previously suggested, it is crucial to the health of the public to remove barriers to the development of Chinese medicine. It is high time that the HKSAR Government fully incorporated Chinese medicine into the local healthcare system to create synergy between Chinese and Western medicine and proactively adopt an integrated approach in bettering the wellbeing of our citizens.