Vancouver’s Chinese medicine practitioners struggle for recognition

December 12, 2016

By Chuck Chiang, Vancouver Sun |

B.C.’s traditional Chinese medicine practitioners are trying to find ways to better lobby the province to gain wider acceptance, including more recognition under the Medical Services Plan, as the public profile of their trade grows.

To that end, a large group of practitioners gathered at Vancouver’s Chinese consulate last month to discuss how to better coordinate industry efforts, including potential funding and legislative approval for health facilities that practice traditional medicine. They see the provincial election next May as an opportunity to lobby for change.

Ben Bao-qi Cao, chair of the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of B.C., said at the meeting that the first step is to combine the various voices in the Chinese-medicine industry to engage the province more effectively.

“Something that people in our field need to realize is that here, to be a medical professional, you need legal certification,” Cao said. “That means the first step to any effort for recognition is legislative (legalization). Without that, you don’t have a legal basis to your craft, and you can’t practice in mainstream society.”

In an emailed response to Postmedia, the provincial Ministry of Health said there are no plans to expand medical coverage into “herbal treatments”, noting that the health care system needs to live “within its fiscal means”.

“Our resources are focused on providing direct health care services to ensure that the system is available to our growing population,” the ministry said, while noting B.C.’s supplementary services coverage is already more comprehensive than that of other provinces.

Acupuncture was officially recognized in B.C. in 1996, followed by aspects of traditional Chinese medicine in 2000. But the practice, including herbal remedies and other treatments with a long history of use in East and Southeast Asia, remains largely outside the Medical Services Plan. That means the majority of patients must pay for their own treatments, and practitioners are limited in where they can practice. Costs-per-session vary from treatment to treatment, but generally range from $80 to $120.

The challenge is not only with the provincial health system. John Yang, coordinator of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s traditional Chinese medicine program that opened in September, said school officials worked for two years with the Ministry of Advanced Education to get the program off the ground. While it is now up and running, it is without a clinic as originally planned, seriously limiting the potential for students.

“The community support for traditional Chinese medicine is there,” Yang said, noting interest in the Kwantlen program, as well as increasing adaptation of acupuncture and cupping — notably by U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. “But the provincial bureaucracy is still (opposed), and decision-makers still don’t have the necessary understanding of what we do. … And we have a bunch of groups that don’t have websites or offices, and we can’t lobby the province effectively like that.”

John Lee, who has been practicing in B.C. for two decades, said the industry needs to speak with one voice, and make an investment in lobbying.

“You have to provide information on how we can help the B.C. health system as a whole, including the potential impact for western doctors and other practices, as well as to the province’s bottom-line,” Lee said. “The problem has always been the lack of a long-term, specific game plan to get officials and other medical professionals to be on our side. If meetings like this (at the consulate) can get us going in the right direction, then that’s obviously a good thing for everyone.”

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