“In the future, people will send photos of their tongue via WhatsApp,” says Lin Zhixiu. He’s not talking about the latest quirky internet craze or teenagers’ Snapchat habits. Lin is predicting how people will contact their doctors.
Lin is associate director of the school of Chinese medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), a department whose very existence may seem surprising in an era when medicine is so closely tied to technology that computers powered by artificial intelligence are diagnosing patients in Shanghai hospitals.
“Everyone from toddlers to 90-year-olds comes to our clinic for traditional medicine,” says Lin. “I also see a growing trend of young people opting for Chinese medicine, especially when they have things like a cold, cough, flu or pain such as back or neck pain.”
He’s not the only one. Rather than quietly closing shop as robots steal their jobs, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners are arguing that there is a place for their ancient remedies in the 21st century—and they’re generating cutting-edge research to prove it.
In 2015, chemist Tu Youyou from the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine won a Nobel Prize for deriving an anti-malaria drug from sweet wormwood. Other researchers have proved traditional remedies’ effectiveness at tackling everything from eczema to infertility, and for the first time this year the World Health Organisation has listed TCM in its annual global compendium that instructs doctors around the world.
This scientific backing is contributing to a global boom in TCM, which as an industry is estimated to be worth about US$60 billion a year and is growing 11 per cent annually.