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What are the laws around Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in China?

Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, is a source of fascination for many foreigners in China, but for many Chinese people it is simply another way of ensuring physical wellbeing, along with Western medicine. Read on to find out a little more about TCM and how it is covered by law on the Chinese mainland.

How does TCM work?

The principles of TCM are based on the physiology and pathology of human body, and like Western medicine they are used in the diagnosis, cure and prevention of disease. 

Unlike Western medicine, TCM doctors believe that a healthy body requires a balance of yin and yang (positive and negative energy) and that this can be achieved through methods including – but not limited to – the preparation of herbal medicines, acupuncture, massage, cupping therapy, qigong (a system of physical and breathing exercises) and dietary therapy. 

The treatments used in TCM are not based on clinical trials and tests performed on animals and humans, as in Western medicine, but on guidelines passed down over 2,000 years, with doctors making modifications to the patient’s treatment (when needed) based on their own experience and the experience of their fellows. 


How to get a TCM doctor’s license

TCM is subject to different laws and regulations on the Chinese mainland to Western medicine; The State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine of China promulgates laws regulating the practice of TCM doctors, and maintains the catalogues for the essential Chinese medicines.

To work as a TCM doctor in China, individuals must pass a “practicing doctor” or “assistant practicing doctor” qualification exam. These titles are also applied to Western doctors in China, but the examination systems they go through or completely different. 

All doctorial examinations – whether TCM or Western – are organized by the public health administration department in charge of the relevant province. In accordance with different directions of medicine, the exam will have separate tests on different specialties, so do requirements on participants. 

Before even reaching this point, however, the would-be doctor must have a medical degree obtained after five years of medical education. Those with lower-level degrees must intern in practicing medical facilities for over a year before applying for the exam. 

Like their Chinese counterparts, foreigners who want to practice TCM in China must also take the exam; however, before they can do so, they must also obtain a bachelor’s degree in TCM from within China, and intern in a TCM hospital in China for over a year.

Currently, foreigners who want to open a TCM business in China can only do so as a Joint Venture with a Chinese enterprise, although as of yet there appear to be few examples of foreigners opening their own clinics or hospitals, compared to those foreigners working as doctors in (entirely or partially) Chinese-run hospitals. Foreign doctors practicing medicine in China must obtain a Z visa/work visa to lawfully work in China. 


The right to seek a second opinion 

As with Western medicine in China, patients have the right to ask for a second opinion from a TCM doctor if they are not pleased with his or her conclusions.

If the patient is in an outpatient department, he or she can simply go to see another doctor, or another hospital. If the patient is hospitalized, meanwhile, he or she can ask for another doctor to treat him or her, or make a request to transfer to another hospital. 


Medical negligence and TCM

There is no equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath in TCM. Prosecuting TCM medical negligence is also difficult. Most cases of alleged negligence will go through an evaluation process hosted by the local medical association and determined by a group of TCM and Western medicine doctors. Most TCM treatments do not have obvious and decisive effects, and so it is sometimes difficult to fully tell the effect of the treatment from the outside. Also, as TCM theory is holistic, meaning that its treatments may include the patient’s daily diet, activity and environment, it is difficult to pin down individual causes for problems. 

Even if the medical association is able to confirm negligence, it is often difficult to define how severe the direct effects of that negligence are. In such a case, the TCM doctor involved will not be severely punished, unless it is obviously in violation of TCM regulations. Nevertheless, those wanting to push a TCM malpractice investigation can do so in the same way that they would with a Western medicine doctor or hospital.


Useful Chinese words and phrases

中医 zhōngyī Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
中医医生 zhōngyī yīshēng TCM doctor
西医医生 xīyī yīshēng Western doctor 
中草药 zhōngcǎoyào Herbal medicine
针灸 zhēnjiǔ Acupuncture
拔罐 báguàn Cupping therapy
气功 qìgōng Qigong
食疗 shíliáo Dietary therapy
中国国家中医药管理局 zhōngguó guójiā zhōngyīyào guǎnlǐ jú The State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine of China
执业医师 zhíyè yīshī Practicing doctor
助理执业医师 zhùlǐ zhíyè yīshī Assistant practicing doctor


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