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Acupuncture Treatment in Chinese Hospitals– A Successful Numbers Game

Most blogs written by Western acupuncturists who have been on study trips mention the ‘scale of things’ in China and I am no different. China is big and bold and all encompassing: the vast and varied landscape, the technology and the architecture are all befitting the world’s largest population.

The Chinese have been at the forefront of some big inventions. A gigantic wall spanning 13,000 miles that you can see from space, fireworks, noodles and an ancient medicine that requires very little effort to create a huge impact.

Even though I have been immersed in Chinese medicine for a decade, it wasn’t until our time at the Heilongjiang University teaching hospital did, I appreciate the scale of its capabilities.

Most practitioners in the West, work in private practice and see patients in one on one consultations, (this has its own advantages and suits our cultural sensibilities) but seeing 5-7 patients a day is not a numbers game. With 1.5 billion people, the Chinese have developed a proficient numbers game which revolves around technique and efficiency.

My adventures in 'not to scale' China. Harbin Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival.

A day on the Neurology Ward

We studied at the ‘acupuncture’ hospitals of which there are two (grandly named the 1st and 2nd Affiliated) both absolutely huge in size: as big as any Western hospital I have been in. Wards are divided into specialties, neurology, dermatology, ophthalmology, etc.

Our first day, in the Neurology Department ( cases comprised mild-medium stroke, and facial paralysis) is a fitting example of the capability of acupuncture: increasing the scale of delivery of the treatment provided big wins.

Patients lined up quietly in the corridors to see the doctor. One-on-one consultations were conducted for around 15 minutes covering all the details. Then the patient was usually sent off for a CT scan ( also provided on-site) and were back with the scan in hand within two hours.

The doctor examined the scan, and with a full diagnostic picture from Eastern and Western perspectives decided on the acupuncture protocol, and the patient was treated immediately. The more serious cases were admitted to the ward for twice-daily treatment and milder cases were released as out-patients and came daily for an hour.

Having provided an exact diagnosis, the needling time was on average 5 minutes per patient. FIVE MINUTES for around 25 needles!!!! The doctors hold around (20 needles between their fingers for ease) and performed this needling technique that was something akin to a graceful dance around the patient’s scalp from one and then on to the next. One small ward contained about ten patients and the doctor would generally finish the round in an hour.

Let it also be noted that the Chinese are no wimps compared to us Westerners. The needles are much longer and thicker and retained for a larger duration but they hardly even wince. Acupuncture is as routine in China as sticking out your tongue and saying ‘ ahhhh’.

The Big Numbers

Diagnosis, treatment and follow-up sessions are administered within 24 hours. The key to recovery is the frequency of the treatment-tackling the acute stage. Chronic conditions drain both the system and the patient’s quality of life. They are expensive, exhaustive for resources, and require hospital beds for long stays. The Chinese use the ‘nip it in the bud’ approach to serve their gigantic population, keep the wards moving and the people recovered.

Adjunct care is also available with the brilliant efficiency of a ‘one-stop shop’- as there is no outsourcing, everything is available at the acupuncture hospital. These additions included herbal prescriptions to take home or be administered on wards through an IV and cupping or electro-acupuncture delivered by nursing assistants or junior doctors. There was also tui na ( a form of Chinese massage) and physiotherapy. On occasion, Western medication was prescribed.

What are the numbers on the efficiency of this system? The average success rate for a full recovery was 80 % if treatment is given within the first three months of the condition (mild to moderate strokes facial paralysis and drop foot- a side effect of stroke). ONE doctor can administer a minimum of 392 successful treatments in a five-day working week and still have time for a daily noodle lunch.

In the 20 % of patients that do not experience a full recovery, there is a reported reduction in symptoms- so all the treatments administered have a level of efficacy.

Bear in mind the cost of needles is very little- in China about £2 for 100 and there are very few adverse side effects from acupuncture.

Bringing Acupuncture to The NHS on a Larger Scale

My reason for applying for this study trip was to see how East and West can be integrated into public health care. I have quite a few ideas around this which have been strengthened by seeing the Chinese in action. I love the NHS; I believe in its principles and the incredible people who work there. We are extremely lucky to be hanging on ( be it by a thread) to a free health service.

I think most agree, in current circumstances, the system is stretched to bursting and we need some radical ideas to bring the NHS from its knees back onto its feet again.

The thing is, the ideas I saw in China aren’t radical. They work on many levels. I’m not saying it’s the only solution or method, but it can take the strain off the system on various chronic cases and also provide relief for staff if the patient’s recovery time is much faster.

Maybe I’m an idealist ( it’s been said before) but I believe Eastern and Western medicine can work together to treat more effectively with minimal adverse effects and at a very low cost. The two have been already been integrated in Australia and the US in some areas.

NHS I am coming for you with all my big Chinese ideas. I promise I’ll use the smaller and thinner needles…….

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