China passed a law at its top legislature on Sunday demonstrating its intention to put greater emphasis on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in its healthcare system.

The law, which will come into effect on July 1, 2017, is aimed at improving patient access to a wider range of healthcare.

This ancient form of medicine has been somewhat neglected since the introduction of Western medicine under the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Over 2,000 years old, Traditional Chinese Medicine covers five main areas:

  • acupuncture
  • qigong (exercise)
  • massage
  • plants and minerals
  • and dietary therapy

Unlike Western doctors, practitioners learn the techniques of TCM from a 'master' instead of studying the discipline at university.

According to a white paper published by China's State Council Information Office in December 2016, there are 3,966 TCM hospitals and 42,528 TCM clinics in China, employing around 452,000 practitioners. These hospitals and clinics undertake an average of 910 million consultations per year.

Development of traditional medicine in hospitals

The new law aims to protect and facilitate the development of TCM, requiring regional governments to set up TCM institutions in public-funded general hospitals and mother-and-child care centres.

In addition, practitioners will be able to take exams to obtain a license allowing them to practice TCM in hospitals or clinics, or to work privately. Up until now, these practitioners could not qualify as doctors, as medical training prioritizes Western medicine and fluency in English.

The new law also stipulates that TCM and Western medicine will be put on an equal footing, with better training of TCM practitioners and monitoring of the use of products containing pesticides.

International exchanges and global cooperation to develop TCM are to be stepped up.

In October 2015, Tu Youyou was the first Chinese person to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, for her work on a traditional anti-malaria medicine. The award of this prestigious prize to a member of the Academy of Chinese Traditional Medical Sciences was met with some surprise.

According to the World Health Organization, 103 member states approved the practice of acupuncture and moxibustion (a traditional therapy which consists of burning dried mugwort on particular points on the body), 29 have passed laws on traditional medicine, and 18 have included acupuncture and moxibustion in their medical insurance provision