NGO Focus: Chinese Medicine without Borders

In a wooden shed built on the beach of Infanta, a semi-rural town in the Philippines with about 70,000 residents, men and women lie on mattresses placed on the floor. They are here to receive traditional Chinese therapies such as acupuncture, cupping, and scraping. Others wait to pick up various forms of herbal medicine.

Situated in one of the country’s most poverty-stricken areas, Infanta is the first project location of Chinese Medicine for All (CMA), a Hong Kong-based NGO established in 2009 to offer free Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatments in marginalised, underprivileged communities across Asia. Using the simple shed as a base, the CMA team handles as many as 100 cases each day, tending to ailments and injuries such as menstrual disorders, muscle pain and bone fractures. 

“As traditional Chinese doctors, we uphold the tradition of helping the poor and needy,” says Dr Vincent Lee, co-founder of CMA and registered Chinese medicine practitioner in Hong Kong. “Traditional Chinese medicine is highly affordable, effective, and easy-to-perform; it can be a great medical alternative for people living in less affluent places.”

Serving the underprivileged

Despite remarkable economic progress over the past decades, many of Asia’s developing countries still lag behind when it comes to healthcare, particularly in rural areas. Residents of remote towns and villages often can’t afford treatment, either due to financial constraints or a lack of accessible hospital facilities.

In early 2008, Lee witnessed the impact of insufficient healthcare firsthand, when he led a group of undergraduate students from Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) on a cultural field trip to Infanta. “The government allocated very little medical resources to that area. The only medical facility nearby was a simple district hospital, with only one doctor on duty each day,” he recalls. “Poor and uninformed, people often neglect ailments such as muscle pain, coughing and digestive disorders, which could eventually develop into chronic diseases.”

The idea to bring TCM to Infanta came after Lee learned about Integrated Community Development Assistance Inc. (ICDAI), a local NGO that had been providing simple acupuncture therapy to residents and was keen to expand its services. For Lee, it was an opportunity to implement what he had long been considering. “My colleagues and I had always wanted to create a TCM version of Doctors Without Borders,” he explains. “Infanta and ICDAI seemed like the perfect platform to make it happen.”

Back in Hong Kong, Lee and TCM doctors Charmaine Tsang and Dennis Au, both fellow alumni of the School of Chinese Medicine of HKBU, began reaching out to all registered TCM doctors and TCM departments of universities across Hong Kong.

In May 2009, the trio established CMA, hosting the first official service trip to Infanta in August that same year. Since then, the NGO has been sending 15 TCM doctors and students to the town annually to volunteer on rotation.

As the Infanta project matured, so did CMA. The organisation gradually began to build up a pool of 150 volunteer doctors and extended its services to remote areas of Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and India, working with local NGOs such as religious organisations, children’s homes, and medical centres. And in Hong Kong, they have treated domestic workers through the Mission for Migrant Workers, an NGO committed to improving the lives of migrant workers. Over the past decade, CMA has helped more than 20,000 people across Asia.

A long-term solution

Although rigorous scientific evidence of TCM’s effectiveness is limited, its use in recent years has become widespread around the world. In some cases, TCM works well in combination with Western medicine (in treating schizophrenia, for instance). Treatments like acupuncture and cupping have been endorsed by athletes to relieve muscle spasms, while herbal remedies have been embraced by many as natural alternatives to treat mild to moderate illnesses.

CMA does not intend to serve as a substitute for Western therapies but, Lee says, it often offers the only care its patients can access. “Since they have no other medical options, they follow our advice diligently, from medication and diet, through to lifestyle and emotion management [such as stress and anger],” he explains.

The works of CMA have generally enjoyed a positive response from communities, because TCM has been a widely accepted practice in these areas for the past 2,200 years. “They respect the practice,” says Lee, recalling the long lines of patients that often greet CMA’s doctors when they return to a location.

The organisation is also working hard to make a lasting impact on the people it treats. “We don’t just want to spread TCM to different parts of Asia,” Tsang says. “We also want to involve rural villagers so that they can give back to their communities.”

“It’s about improving their healthcare at large,” she continues. “We can’t just offer some services and leave.  We need to provide a long-term contribution.”

We can’t just offer some services and leave.  We need to provide a long-term contribution.

Charmaine Tsang, co-founder of CMA

That solution has come in the form of a six-month educational programme launched in 2014, which trains ‘community acupuncturists’ in Infanta and Chaw Sane village, in Myanmar, by teaching manipulative therapies such as acupuncture, tui na massage, cupping and scraping.

The programme tends to admit more female students, as it’s more likely for men to leave the villages in search of work, or in the case of Myanmar, join the army. To that end, Tsang believes it has also become an empowering tool for many female attendees. “People from the community seek help from [these community acupuncturists] due to their expertise, and that’s definitely a confidence booster.”

Hosted by two Hong Kong TCM practitioners in each location, the programme has trained a total of 25 acupuncturists. While serving their communities, the newly appointed practitioners continue to receive support from CMA for the two years following their course, as well as undergoing exams and further training to strengthen their skills.

“It’s impossible to teach [the students] everything about TCM in just half a year,” Tsang admits. “But the therapeutic skills they learn are cheap and convenient to perform and are very effective in curing common problems among rural people, such as muscle strains and other types of pain caused by the tough work they do.”

Moving forward, Tsang says CMA plans to train more acupuncturists in impoverished and remote areas across Asia: “Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.”

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