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Exploring Medical Frontiers
Professor strives to prove the complementary nature of Chinese and Western medical science
By Li Yifan | NO.34 AUGUST 23, 2018
Zhang Xiaojun talks to a patient at Xiyuan Hospital in Beijing on May 17 (SHI GANG)

At 8 a.m. on May 23, bustling crowds fill the outpatient hall of Xiyuan Hospital in west Beijing. Outside the breast clinic, people from across the country queue up waiting to see Professor Zhang Xiaojun, hoping that his renowned skills can help relieve their pain. Inside the room, Zhang is explaining to his current patient the details of her condition.

As the attending physician for breast cancer at Xiyuan Hospital, Zhang's clinics are notoriously difficult to get into. But Zhang works overtime for patients who are unable to make an appointment, sensitive to the trouble it would cause them to make a return visit and the financial burden for those coming from outside Beijing. He usually works until 9 p.m. every workday, and even uses his lunch break to see patients. After lunch at 2 p.m., he usually has some much needed refreshment in the form of a cup of coffee, and then quickly gets back to work.

Such a busy schedule has long since become his normal pattern. By alluding to cases he has successfully treated in the past, Zhang tries to allay his patients' concerns and offer them encouragement. "I enjoy my work. Many patients coming into my office look worried, but they leave looking relieved. Nothing can compare with that sense of satisfaction," Zhang told Beijing Review.

Revolutionary therapy

Zhang has been involved with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) since he was a child. "During my childhood, a TCM doctor often visited my home to treat me when I was sick. Every time I would recover quickly. I fell in love with the smell of Chinese medicinal herbs," he said.

He was fascinated by the history and lore of TCM and began to learn from the doctor during his second year at middle school. He later entered the School of TCM at the Capital Medical University and after graduating, worked in the Surgery Department of Xiyuan Hospital.

Zhang explained to Beijing Review why he chose to work in the Surgery Department. "There were few men studying TCM at that time, and during our internship the female students were too scared to sew up incisions following surgery. I had to assist my teacher during every procedure," Zhang recalled. "After practicing for a long time, I realized that doctors had to grasp authentic skills to perform surgery. Upon my graduation, there was a vacancy for surgeons at Xiyuan Hospital, so I applied." Although Zhang became a surgeon, he did not totally shelve his knowledge and fascination with TCM. Instead, he combined the two while treating patients.

"I gave acupuncture treatment and offered digital acupoint pressure and other TCM remedies to patients. These forms of therapy turned out to be effective and won patients' acknowledgment." Since then, Zhang has integrated TCM with Western medicine to specialize in the treatment of breast cancer.

One day in 2008, Zhang received a phone call from another breast oncologist, telling him of a patient who had been diagnosed with plasma cell mastitis and had relapsed three times. Various Western methods had been used to treat the patient, but all had failed. By this point Zhang's background as a specialist in both TCM and Western medicine was well known, and so the doctor on the phone believed that he was the man to turn to.

The causes of plasma cell mastitis are still unknown, but its incident rate has been increasing in recent years. Its clinical manifestations include swelling, redness, ulceration and purulence, which can lead to changes in the shape of the breast. The irregular range of lesions means that it is difficult to completely remove. Patients not only suffer from physical pain, but also face enormous psychological pressure.

After receiving the call, Zhang devoted himself to studying the pathology of plasma cell mastitis from the perspective of TCM. He finally discovered a treatment using a few Chinese medicinal herbs which had miraculous effects, was non-invasive and also kept patients' breasts intact. His therapy also proved effective in the postoperative healing of wounds.

Zhang's pioneering TCM therapy spread by word of mouth among patients and now he receives nearly 10,000 patient visits every year, with some patients even coming from abroad for his services. "Many people did not believe that a TCM therapy could cure plasma cell mastitis, but now more and more hospitals and patients are recognizing this therapy," he said.

Herbal values

President Xi Jinping, also General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), said in his report to the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, "We will support both TCM and Western medicine, and ensure the preservation and development of TCM." One year previously at a national conference on health, Xi also stressed the importance of developing both Chinese and Western medicine and promoting the complementary and coordinated development of the two systems, as both have significant advantages for China's health undertakings.

Xi's observations resonated deeply with Zhang. "TCM and Western medicine are not contradictory," he said. "Western medicine is indispensable in emergency treatments and surgery, but TCM also has its own advantages. For example, it can be used to treat some diseases that Western medicine cannot cure, and is effective in preemptive healthcare, keeping fit and postoperative rehabilitation."

Zhang was at pains to note that he does not object to surgery, but believes that TCM and Western medicine can be integrated. According to Zhang, doctors can use TCM to reduce swelling before performing surgery, which could help to reduce the potential for harm.

Yet although TCM and Western medicine are complementary in some areas, the reality is that the benefits of TCM remain poorly acknowledged in the West. In Zhang's opinion, TCM should use internationally accepted methods and authentic data to justify itself, and employ evidence-based research to win recognition in Western minds. "Right now I am trying to make TCM better recognized in Western medicine, and promote Chinese medicine to the world," Zhang said.

Entwined destiny

Zhang has worked at Xiyuan Hospital since 1989, and has witnessed the changes and development of the hospital over nearly 30 years. "When I started working at Xiyuan Hospital, its facilities were outdated and insufficient, not much better than most township hospitals." But with the development and growing prosperity of the country, more and more emphasis has been placed on its modernization. Later, Xiyuan Hospital opened new outpatient buildings and upgraded its instruments and equipment. "The hospital has undergone major changes and I am very proud to work here," Zhang said.

With the evolution of society and the economy, China's national strength has improved along with living standards. People's awareness of their own health has also increased, which has made the public more skeptical of those with no real knowledge of and skills in TCM. Moreover, the government has issued strict rules on the research and development of medical science as well as clinical trials. All this has helped TCM to win acceptance from people and the support of the government.

TCM has not only brought benefits to the Chinese people, but is gradually becoming popular elsewhere in the world. Xiyuan Hospital, as a champion of TCM, organizes training and exchange activities about TCM with foreign hospitals every year. It also dispatches Chinese medicine experts to Germany, Australia and other countries. In recent years, the research and development of TCM to treat hypoglycemia, hypolipidemia and heart disease has been certified by developed countries such as Germany and New Zealand. TCM is gradually spreading from China to the rest of the world.

"As a TCM doctor, my primary aspiration is to serve people's health," said Zhang. "After retiring, I would like to use my knowledge and skills in TCM to volunteer at a not-for-profit nursing home."

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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