Integrating modern, traditional medicines to treat Covid-19

The use of herbal remedies and traditional methods can be evaluated only to complement the recovery process and not as a specific treatment for the disease, says medical expert

by SOON LI WEI/ Pic courtesy of Sunway TCM Centre

WHILE scientists and medical experts are racing against time to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, traditional and complementary medicine (T&CM) treatment modalities are also being tried out in certain countries like China to treat the disease.

In China’s Hubei province, where the coronavirus outbreak was first detected late last year, medical doctors are said to have combined traditional Chinese medicine and western medicine to treat Covid-19 patients, with 95% of them reportedly recovering from the disease.

The World Health Organisation’s Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023, which recognises the contribution of T&CM to health, acknowledges that there is a significant and increasing demand for its practices and practitioners worldwide.

Sunway TCM Centre director Dr Lim Ren Jye said people in many countries are using T&CM, due to cultural and historical influences, as a complementary therapy and traditional medicine as it is one of their primary sources of healthcare.

In Malaysia, he said, almost a third of Malaysians living in urban areas are consulting T&CM practitioners to treat their ailments as some of them experience adverse effects from western medicines.

“However, for Covid-19 patients, the use of herbal remedies and traditional methods can be evaluated only to complement the recovery process and not as a specific treatment for the disease,” he added.

Research

Is Malaysia considering the use of T&CM to treat Covid-19?

Dr Lim, who is also a T&CM consultant in Sunway Healthcare Group, said when he met China’s Guangdong Provincial Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine chief physician and VP Dr Li Jun in Kuala Lumpur in April this year, the latter told him that research is vital to evaluate the efficacy and safety of T&CM in Covid-19 management if it is to be implemented in Malaysia.

During Dr Li and his team’s visit to Malaysia, Dr Lim had joined the discussion on their first-hand experiences in the adoption of Chinese herbal medicine to treat Covid-19 patients.

Dr Lim said according to the Chinese experts, the traditional remedies used have alleviated symptoms, reduced the severity of the disease, improved recovery rates and reduced the mortality rate, particularly among patients with co-morbidities who were warded in the intensive care unit (ICU).

“Thus, we adopted and adapted the treatment guidelines in Malaysia, then developed a research initiative on treatment options for Covid-19 with the aim of reducing the stress of the frontliners in hospitals, especially during critical times when case numbers are increasing sharply,” he said.

Dr Lim told Bernama the research initiative by Sunway Healthcare Group, in collaboration with Hospital Sungai Buloh, Ministry of Health (MoH) and Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine Alumni Malaysia, would look into the effectiveness of herbal medicine, in addition to the standard care, in the treatment of confirmed Covid-19 cases that are clinically classified Grade 2 and above in Malaysia.

The proposal for the research initiative was submitted to the government in April, but the Medical Review and Ethics Committee under the MoH has put it on hold.

Evidence

Dr Lim said: “We (Sunway Healthcare Group) believe that the T&CM treatments used for Covid-19 patients in China can be replicated in the Malaysian landscape as they have shown to be effective in China.

“More importantly, our hope is that T&CM can help shorten the duration (of hospital stay) of patients who are warded, as well as reduce the use of ventilators in the ICU.”

He said one of the challenges of implementing T&CM for Covid-19 treatment is proving evidences of its usage with scientific and clinical data as required by MoH.

“Being a medical doctor, evidence is key. Even though T&CM has been used for thousands of years and much scientific data has been collated by T&CM experts in China, MoH remains cautious due to the lack of details on the remedies.

“Hence, research is a way we can evaluate the efficacy of T&CM in treating patients

with Covid-19. T&CM has so far played a substantial role in China’s fight against Covid-19 and I believe that this can be applied as a model for Malaysia,” he added.

Integrate T&CM, Western Medicine

T&CM physician Low Soon Yee hoped to see the integration of T&CM and western medicine in Malaysia’s national healthcare system, especially with Covid-19 cases on the rise now.

“In Sabah, for example, the battle against Covid-19 for its frontliners is now at a critical state as they are struggling to cope with the daily high Covid-19 cases in hospitals.

“This is the right time for us T&CM physicians to contribute to efforts to contain the Covid-19 situation in Sabah by using traditional remedies as complementary medicine in hospitals,” she said.

The Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine Alumni deputy president said integrating traditional and western medicines can be challenging due to a lack of knowledge and misconceptions.

Many medical doctors, she said, have little or inaccurate information about T&CM. On the other side of the coin, T&CM physicians may also have the wrong concept or misunderstanding of western medicine.

“Medical doctors are trained to rely on scientific evidence as criteria for integration, but T&CM has existed long before science.

“The root issue in the integration is the inter-practice of medicine. This is why we need to find a middle ground by using the best features of each system and compensating for certain weaknesses in each of them,” said Low, who works at a T&CM centre in Setapak.

Dr Lim, meanwhile, said in recent times, T&CM practices and guidelines have improved significantly where some medical doctors, who are trained as physicians, also offer their patients advice on alternative treatment modalities.

“We have the advantage of having professionals qualified in both western medicine and T&CM in Malaysia. There are, for example, T&CM practitioners with an MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) degree and pharmacists with a herbal medicine background and a Bachelor’s degree in pharmacy.

“This allows them to understand the benefits of what both fields of medicine can offer and with this, the ability to provide the best possible options and treatment for the patients,” he said.

MoH has a T&CM division and as of 2019, 15 T&CM outpatient units have been opened at public healthcare facilities. — Bernama