A smoggy day in Beijing town: public health in Beijing

Traditional Chinese herb-picking alongside the Great Wall. Photo courtesy of Chi-chi Uichanco / GlobeMed at Northwestern.

For the past seven weeks, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to study in the crazy, crowded capital of the most populous country on earth: Beijing, China! The IPD program in Beijing is designed to allow us to witness the lasting impressions of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and learn about the basic public health structures in the country. Meanwhile, this lively, bustling city is our oyster to explore; it’s not too hard to blend in with a population exceeding twenty-two million.

The TCM half of the program was …interesting, to say the least. I came into this program with an open mind, excited to learn how other cultures viewed common health practices. After the first lecture we learned that, essentially, TCM revolves around the basic tenets of Yin-Yang Theory, the Five Elements, and Visceral Theory. Interestingly, they have quite a hold on modern Chinese culture as well. For example, Yin-Yang Theory dictates that every single entity on Earth exists as Yin or Yang, where Yin and Yang are two opposite but inter-related areas of life. Yang can be daytime, hot soup, or summer; yin can be night time, ice cream, or winter. Whether something is considered yin or yang will dictate how you treat it — that is, in TCM, whether a symptom is considered a yin or yang-symptom dictates whether you prescribe a yin or yang treatment. A common occurrence in China (especially for older people) is to refrain from drinking hot soup in fear of upsetting the body’s balance of yin and yang. Of course much of Chinese traditional thought has made way for modern habits, but much of the older generation is still quite resistant to complete westernization.

For a more hands-on experience, several students got to try out some traditional methods, such as acupuncture, moxibustion and cupping. All these practices serve to remedy imbalances of the body’s qi (or the energy which flows throughout channels in the body), but it seemed that acupuncture was China’s answer to every problem possible — migraines, cramps, even cervical cancer. Myself, I subtlety avoided the needles and opted for two small cups on my back which suctioned off a large portion of my skin for thirty minutes, branding me with got two large, red welts. I’ll tell you how my qi feels in a month. All this only scratches the surface of TCM — these practices go back ages in history!

Getting cupping done in the TCM ward of a Geriatric/Rehab Center. Photo courtesy of Chi-chi Uichanco / GlobeMed at Northwestern.

The second half of the program moved on to public health in China. This consisted of several hospital/health center/clinic visits, where we got to experience firsthand what Chinese citizens undergo to receive health care. Most practices were pretty standard, save for the occasional TCM ward or herbal pharmacy — it was great to see the growth of such an integrative approach, where doctors combined both Western and TCM techniques with their patients. Moreover, it was cool to see how the Chinese population worried about such different health problems than America does. Of course, we learned of the soaring number of cases of infectious diseases rampant in third world China. However, the leading causes of death area changing, especially in the more developed areas of China. For example, one of the most prevalent preventable risk factors in Chinese adult health is hypertension, or high blood pressure. This is due to certain aspects of the Chinese lifestyle, such as the enormous daily salt intake inherent in the cuisine. Equally as surprising was the lack of privacy in all the hospitals. Imagine, you’re prepping to receive a handful of acupuncture needles on your tender behind, and in comes a crowd of loud American students, furiously scrawling observations into notepads and snapping pictures. This was a fairly common occurrence wherever we went, but most patients didn’t seem to mind. Funny, how Chinese street decorum translated so seamlessly into Chinese hospital decorum…

I’m also excited to jump back into the health care debate going on States-side. Interestingly enough, there’s a health care reform currently under development in China as well. The majority of Chinese citizens are presently under government insurance programs, which are separated into rural and urban populations. However, the problem is that the majority of Chinese live in rural areas, while the majority of government health spending is allotted to urban health centers. Also, analysts have recognized a gap in health care coverage affecting the large population of migrant workers in China. Furthermore, the allotment system has suffered from inefficiency, requiring most health financing to come from out-of-pocket expenses. Currently, reforms are underway to alleviate these problems, but it will be interesting to see how these unfold in the coming years.

Aside from the academic setting, I think the true appeal of this program is tapping into the Chinese mindset. At first, my silly American manners prevented me from recognizing charm on the trash-ridden, polluted Beijing sidewalks: the fountain of loogies, public urination, exposed beer-bellies… it’s definitely an acquired taste. But after a while, you begin to realize that there’s nothing wrong with throwing politeness out the window. Of course, nothing’s personal; human interaction in this high-energy city is just very simple and straightforward… and simplicity can be a beautiful thing.

Of course, when I return to the States in a week, I’ll have to get re-accustomed to my ‘thank you’s,’ ‘excuse me’s’ and astronomical American prices. After weeks of painstakingly honing my bargaining skills (a cute flowy top down from 300 kuai to 80 kuai, fake Louboutins down from 4,000 to 250 kuai — how I’d love to bargain for my college tuition) I guess I’ll just have to accept that I’ll be paying four dollars for a cappuccino and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. -CHI-CHI UICHANCO

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