Health Beyond Medicine: Dr. Ka-Kit Hui on Integrative East-West Medicine — US-China Better Relations Coalition

East-West Approach to Pain \u0026 Self-Management
East-West Approach to Pain \u0026 Self-Management

Health Beyond Medicine: Dr. Ka-Kit Hui on Integrative East-West Medicine

“If you just know about the branches and roots of your trees, you might lose sight of the entire forest. Chinese medicine, therefore, does not divide the body into different parts but looks at the body, the mind, and the spirit as a whole.” — Dr. Ka-Kit Hui

Ka-Kit Hui, M.D., F.A.C.P. is the Wallis Annenberg Professor in Integrative East-West Medicine and Professor and Director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine at the Department of Medicine of the David Geffen School of Medicine. Dr. Hui is an internationally acclaimed educator and researcher and is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology, with expertise in Geriatrics. He is also a recognized authority in Chinese Medicine and integrative medicine. He has served as a consultant to the FDA, U.S.A, National Institutes of Health, World Health Organization, health insurance companies, drug companies, and the media and has held visiting and honorary professorships in various universities throughout the world.

In December 1993, Dr. Hui founded the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, which is one of the first integrative medicine centers in the United States. He has developed a model system of comprehensive care that is a patient-centered, problem-solving approach emphasizing health promotion, disease prevention, treatment, and is safe, effective, affordable, and accessible to all. The Center’s clinical program receives referrals from more than 500 physicians within UCLA for refractory problems, including many chronic pain conditions, and continues to expand to meet the demand for a holistic patient care model within the UCLA Health Systems. The Center’s extensive education programs offer fellowships, rotations, classes, workshops, conferences, and events to physicians, medical residents, health care professionals, medical and non-medical students, and community members throughout the year.

In this interview, Dr. Ka-Kit Hui shares with us in this interview his career in Integrative East-West Medicine and his motivation for founding the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine. Dr. Hui compares Traditional Chinese Medicine with Western medicine and provides insights on the benefits and challenges of combining the two systems. He highlights the importance of US-China collaboration in promoting integrative medicine and applauds the creation of the US-China Better Relations Coalition.

Note:

At the time of publication of this interview, COVID-19 has become a global health priority, and the Center, working with local institutions, focuses on developing strategic health and health education programs to alleviate and mitigate both short-term and long-term effects of COVID-19 on all communities. The Center is developing East-West models around education, treatments, and research expected to be used both domestically and worldwide.

How did you become interested in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?

I grew up in Hong Kong when it was then still a British colony and China was still behind its bamboo curtain. I went to high school speaking English, but I also had the chance to get exposed to herbal medicine, Tai Chi, and Tuina (bodywork).

In 1972, during President Nixon’s historic visit to China, it was the first time for me to see acupuncture on TV. I got to read about acupuncture being used for pain, nausea, and vomiting and that China had been embarking on developing integrative medicine since 1955. I was then a medical student at UCLA studying neuroscience, and these new experiences were very important stimuli for me because I wanted to understand how acupuncture worked for pain control from the point of view of chemistry and neuroscience. So, I self-studied Chinese medicine and integrative western medicine and got my hands on as many books in Chinese medicine as possible to understand ancient texts and modern sciences in Chinese medicine while learning western medicine at UCLA. I had this dream of building a better healthcare model by blending the best of both Chinese and western medicine in the United States.

Why did you decide to establish the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine in 1993?

By the early 1990s, I was already an associate professor who had taught clinical pharmacology and medicine for many years. I had spent my time learning from those pioneers of integrative East-West medicine in Peking Union, Beijing Medical University, and other major Chinese medicine institutions in China, but in 1993, I made a critical decision to bring together what I had learned during the first twenty-some years of both medicines to create an innovative health model to help more people, particularly those with chronic pain, so I went to my chairman and asked for his permission to build a center.

At that time, there was no money because of the recession and barely any chance for me to do this because Chinese medicine was still thought to be quackery or an outcast in medicine. I had to use my own money, my family resources, and also donations from my grateful patients to initiate the project. Now, 27-some years later, through the hard work of many stakeholders and the support of the institution, we have become a major force within the UCLA health systems as a last resort with referrals from more than 500 colleagues from UCLA. We have four clinics in different parts of Los Angles to care for patients.

What do you think are the key differences between Western biomedicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine? Do you think there are any conflicts between those two systems?

The West thinks about the roots of a health problem as missing hormone/vitamins, enzyme deficiency, or chemical imbalances. It’s more successful for acute management when a local disease breaks out. It essentially divides the body into different parts so that doctors can study and specialize in one of these parts to treat those specific organs.

Chinese medicine, however, looks at the body, the mind, and the spirit not as separated, but as a whole. It’s a way of thinking and helping people to look at your body and mind through harmony and moderation. We think the root is the person as a whole, so doctors teach patients to change their lifestyles, eat the right diet, do the right exercise, or have the appropriate amount of rest to bring their bodies back into balance. With balance, it leads you to normal flow and, most importantly, the right spirit. By looking at balance, flow, and spirit, you get to look for diseases before they happen.

Many people have questions about the scientific basis of Chinese medicine. Do you think Western medicine is more advanced than Chinese medicine? If so, should people try to modernize Chinese medicine?

People have to accept that Chinese medicine can work in the right hands, not every time, not all the time, but it has value in navigating through the East and the West. It’s an old yet advanced way of thinking that’s related to biophysics and quantum mechanics.

Interestingly, Chinese medicine is more about how we are influenced by both the natural and the social environments. Many U.S. doctors have now realized that we need to put the patients back to the center and think about the social and environmental determinants, but Chinese medicine already recognizes that, and the West is catching up to recognize it.

What do you think is the ideal model of integration?

Right now, people still just come to us as a last resort, after surgeries or drug treatments fail, but I want integrative medicine or health to be embraced by everyone a lot sooner so that people can know and use this approach at home and take care of themselves when it is still early. One should assess every situation with this knowledge in mind so that one can navigate between the East and the West and orchestrate the use of both at the different stages of our life span. In general, we may benefit from acute management offered by Western medicine when the body is overwhelmed and when the body parts are in disarray, but we can also get the benefits of integrative medicine for both health cultivation/prevention and treatment.

That’s why our Center has been putting a lot of information about integrative East-West medicine into a digital format online to have more people learn this simply from their homes. We want to train not just chefs, but more cooks, including all of us who can cook for themselves at home in their own kitchens.

Are there any challenges that you encounter when promoting this model of integration?

In the US, we have a financially unsustainable healthcare system. Only those people in sub-specialties who do the procedures make big money. They save people’s lives, and there’s a lot of money that people are willing to pay, but integrative medicine is relatively cheap. It’s about prevention and caring for the whole person, rather than expensive procedures or drugs.

The same thing happens in China. A lot of people actually are beneficiaries of TCM without even knowing it. When I went to Xinjiang, doctors in the TCM hospital said that they had to do MRIs to get the money – they can’t make money by just doing acupuncture, massage, or cupping. They had no resources to promote the usefulness of TCM, and there were people who might not believe in TCM because it was inexpensive.

Also, in the attempt to modernize Chinese medicine, there have been concerns that China has been westernizing Chinese medicine. The system started to organize it according to different specialties, such as TCM cardiology, TCM oncology, and so on. It’s more westernization and not enough integration. In that way, they would lose the original tenet of Chinese medicine. It’s like if you just know about the branches and roots of your trees, you might lose sight of the entire forest.

How do you envision the future development of integrative medicine in both China and the US? Do you think the two countries are taking different routes in their development?

In the US, integrative medicine is a very weak force. People contributing to it do it as a labor of love, and it is only at the foundation level.

The current administration in China has pushed a lot more by establishing laws and policies as well as putting resources in developing Chinese medicine and its integration with modern medicine in the health systems. In 2011, the government of Shanghai, through the Shanghai Association of Integrative Medicine, invited me as a senior advisor to help train 10,000 Western-trained physicians and public health professionals in the appropriate incorporation of Chinese medicine into the entire community of health system in Shanghai. I have provided advice for Chinese government officials on building a better healthcare delivery system in China by bringing integrative medicine into primary care.

The Center has promoted quite a number of global initiatives and collaborations between Chinese and American physicians and students. Why do you think these exchanges are valuable?

We have been training a substantial number of rising stars from China, and we bring our UCLA students to Shanghai as well. To do integrative medicine, you have to have a very high command of both languages, know how to shift from ancient texts to modern sciences, and have the capability to put them together. Very few people have enough knowledge of both areas or know how to put the two systems together. Therefore, we try to bring and train people from different backgrounds with multiple domains of knowledge needed so that we can come together and help develop integrative medicine as a team.

Through this work, we allow people to understand different cultural beliefs and ways of thinking and to appreciate that different ways of approaching problems are all important. Using these models of integration at this moment will also be helpful to ease tension among people, cultures, and countries.

What advice would you give to students and young professionals interested in bridging the gap between TCM and Western biomedicine?

For U.S. medical students, once you get into medical school, it’s easy for you to be locked into a linear way of thinking. Medical schools have too many experts who specialize in one specific area, but they don’t have enough Renaissance people who care less about being the best but just want to know a more comprehensive picture of what’s going on.

So I hope more people could not only think about specializing in a single area, but also think about what the goals for medicine are and see how they can build a safer, more effective, affordable, and accessible healthcare system for 9 billion lives with a 12 trillion U.S. dollar healthcare budget of the world.

A vlog from UCLA students in the 2019 Shanghai East-West Medicine Study Abroad.

Interviewer: Emily (Jingyi) Zhang, Heidi Yuan

Editor: Emily (Jingyi) Zhang, Heidi Yuan, Danny Xu, Jan (Jiayi) Zhang

Photos: Courtesy of Dr. Ka-Kit Hui, Angela Ling, and UCLA Center for East-West Medicine website.

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