This May 2016 saw the 47th annual congress of traditional Chinese medicine take place in the beautiful medieval town of Rothenburg ob der tauber in Germany. This may sound like an unusual setting for an international Chinese medicine conference, but the mix of tranquil surroundings combined with great hospitality make it the perfect setting for practitioners, medical doctors (yes medical doctors!) and researchers to catch up and to hear about the latest clinical techniques and scientific research findings.
I was speaking at the conference's science panel on my PhD work on Chinese herbal medicine and polycystic ovary syndrome and it was a privilege to be speaking alongside so many Chinese medicine research giants in the world including Professor Peter Wayne from Harvard University and Professor Alan Bensoussan from the University of Western Sydney. Although some were personally sharing their work with us as speakers, some were in the audience too and stimulating discussion through thoughtful debate and questioning. This science panel proved to be a great opportunity for practitioners and academics to get up close and personal with research and to get those creative juices going!
In this post, I want to share some of my take-home messages from this day and provide a synopsis of the event from my perspective as a researcher and a practitioner.
Research in Chinese medicine points to an increasing emphasis by institutions and government bodies on patient-centred research
Across the presentations, the diversity of the conditions being researched was exciting to see and ranged from vascular dementia to chronic neck pain and from polycystic ovary syndrome to breast cancer. Most of us have by now heard about using acupuncture for back and neck pain, but Chinese herbal medicine for vascular dementia and tai chi for reducing falls in the elderly? The range of conditions might come as a surprise to some but it is of significant interest to government funding agencies and charities that we continue to find treatments that can improve people's quality of life. This is especially true for chronic conditions where there are few effective medical treatments available, or for reducing side-effects of medical treatments such as chemotherapy - scenarios in which most UK practitioners will already be familiar with providing support. For me, hearing about evidence in-the-making reminds me that funding bodies have a vested interest in continuing to push the boundaries for patients. Chinese medicine is in a strong place to be researched, firstly because of its documented historical use, but also because of its focus on patient-relevant outcomes such as pain or wellbeing, rather than solely focusing on surrogate measures which have less direct relevance to the patient. It is exciting that our modalities are being investigated as part of this process and that we can play an important role in shaping the knowledge on Chinese medicine at a population level to complement the evidence base we currently have at the individual level.
Communication is our underused friend
Professor Benno Brinkhaus from Berlin's Charite and Richard Blackwell from the UK's Northern College of Acupuncture both raised excellent points in their presentations regarding a need to better communicate our work. As a community of researchers and practitioners, we collectively need to do better when it comes to communicating our research to different stakeholder groups, but also in communicating generally about Chinese medicine as a way of informing members of the public and healthcare professionals. This issue on sharing research findings isn't unique to Chinese medicine - during my doctoral training where I was based in primary care, this was raised a lot throughout conferences and scientific gatherings and there are research projects in primary care specifically funded to explore how this could be done better. For the Chinese medicine community however, we face certain challenges such as fewer resources in terms of time and funding, but organisations such as the Acupuncture Now Foundation have made strong headway in this area in just 2 years since their inception. We need to create a clearer strategy when it comes to communication but perhaps a more important starting point is for us to increase intradisciplinary collaboration as a way of strengthening our position to engage more with other groups.
Funders need to pick the best team possible to carry out research
Throughout the talks of the day, issues around funding were discussed. Whilst the concern was sometimes to do with the lack of funding available, concerns were raised regarding funding coming with certain restrictions or with 'strings attached'. This is not unique to Chinese medicine but is true of funding across the board. For example my PhD funding came from the UK government body NIHR and which was awarded to primary care. This meant my research was necessarily focused on outcomes that were immediately applicable to GPs and nurses and in my case, it was important that a clinical study was conducted to ascertain whether or not a specific Chinese herbal remedy for polycystic ovary syndrome could be recommended. Although this illustrates that the source of funding can come with certain terms and conditions, this is really to be expected given the amount of investment the institution is making in the research team and in the science. Funding streams are naturally extremely competitive and whilst funders are not there to micromanage your research or dictate what you can and cannot do, they do need to choose the best team possible to carry out research in an area that meets their own aims and objectives. Given the increasing focus on patient-centred research and the demand for more evidence in complementary medicine, these collaborations with funders - despite some caveats - can prove extremely fruitful as a way of increasing the evidence-base and knowledge of our disciplines. Perhaps one day, the UK will enjoy ringfenced grant funding through initiatives as the US's NCCIH? We can but dream!
All in all, this proved to be a fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable day - word through the grapevine is that next year's congress will host a social science panel so do keep a look out on their website for further announcements!