Canadian hospital introduces alternative medicine

VANCOUVER,British Columbia (AP) — To the dismay of some of its doctors, the biggest hospital in this Pacific-oriented province is plunging into an ambitious project: Integrating Western medicine with the traditional therapies of Asia.
Acupuncture for headaches, herbal remedies for cancer pain, Chinese-style massage for Parkinson’s disease sufferers. These will be among treatments provided and scrutinized at the Tzu Chi Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which opens Monday at Vancouver Hospital.
The popularity of such treatments is rising across North America, but major hospitals have been reluctant to put their prestige and resources on the line on behalf of alternative medicine.
However, in Vancouver — where nearly one-third of the population is of Asian descent — the initiative made sense to the professionals running the hospital complex.
“The mainstream health care system can’t hide in a hole and pretend these alternatives don’t exist,” said Vancouver Hospital’s president, Murray Martin. “Alternative medicine is everywhere.”
He said the institute will be a pioneer in two respects — offering a variety of traditional healers work space at a major Western-style hospital and subjecting their work to rigorous, Western-style research to verify or disprove its value.
The institute was conceived by a prominent Vancouver-based pediatrician of Chinese descent, Dr. Wah Jun Tze. His medical training is entirely Western, including postgraduate work at Harvard Medical School, but he became fascinated by traditional Chinese medicine during more than 60 trips there since 1985.
“There are 1.2 billion people with very limited resources, and yet they are able to maintain good health and good life expectancy, due in part to traditional medicine,” Tze said.
“There are a lot of things we need to explore. Even though some practices are 2,000 years old, they’ve never been accepted by the Western world because of lack of proper scientific evaluation.”
Tze says he understands why a vocal minority of Vancouver Hospital’s doctors opposes the institute.
“Complementary medicine has a bad name,” Tze said. “It’s not regulated; there’s no quality control. Many practitioners have no proper education, and the good ones are mixed with some snake-oil salesmen.”
It wasn’t just the issue of quackery that roused opposition. Many doctors felt an institute focusing on unproven therapies was a misplaced priority in an era where funds for any new health project are tight.
But after sometimes bitter debate, a majority of the hospital’s doctors and nurses gave approval to the institute, with the understanding that it would strive to set standards for alternative therapies.
The project wouldn’t have materialized without a $4.44 million donation from the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Buddhist charity organization based in Taiwan. The endowment is expected to sustain the institute for several years while it develops other fund-raising sources.
Housed in its own two-story building at Vancouver Hospital, the institute includes a clinic where qualified practitioners will offer alternative therapies and a research section that will coordinate worldwide studies into alternative medicine. A meditation garden is out front.
The institute’s own researchers will focus initially on pain control, cancer treatments, acupuncture, nutrition and stress reduction.
The research program will be directed by Dr. Aubrey Tingle, an assistant dean at the University of British Columbia’s medical school.
“The real challenge is to keep a balance between advocacy and skepticism,” Tingle said. “This is a different kind of research — there’s a strong quality-of-life element to alternative medicine. Yet you can’t say you’ll relax the standards; you need a flexible research design.”