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Exploring Traditional Chinese Medicine in Hong Kong

Living in Hong Kong, you have access to a wide variety of doctors. From private clinics where some of the world’s top doctors practice, to public hospitals that are highly affordable for anyone with an HKID, western-style medical care is never far away. But, medical care in Hong Kong, as with many other facets of life here, is a blend of the east meets west. In the case of medical care, there is a wide variety of “eastern” style medicine available in the city. One of the most common types is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

For expats, the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, may seem alien and intimidating. From funny-smelling herbs to sticking needles into your skin, it is unsurprising why many westerners today stay away from TCM treatments. However, this centuries-old genre of medicine has proven time and time again to be an effective and natural way to treat illnesses.

In this article by Pacific Prime Hong Kong, we will guide you through the different types of TCM in Hong Kong and the health benefits that they provide.

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Is TCM a recognized form of medicine?

In short, the answer is yes. TCM has made various global milestones in the past decades, from being the basis for malaria treatments to aiding in cancer treatments. In fact, western doctors will often use some practices in their care. This is especially true for physiotherapists and naturopaths.

Four key principles of TCM

While various treatments in TCM have made their way into western medical practices, there are four key principles that separate TCM’s philosophy from its western counterpart. These principles are as follows:

  • Your body is an integrated whole: TCM practitioners believe the different parts of your body, along with your mental state and emotions, are fundamentally interconnected, forming a complex and intricate system.
  • You are completely connected to nature: At heart, this principle is a little less spooky than it sounds. It states that your environment, such as your geographical location, the weather, the time of the day, as well as your age and genetics, are all conditions that affect your body.
  • You were born with a natural self-healing ability: Self-healing is at the core of TCM treatments. TCM treatments are meant to unlock your body’s ability to self-heal instead of targeting and suppressing certain symptoms.
  • Prevention is the best cure: Various TCM treatments are meant to protect your body from health complications and treat it before the symptoms arise. From this principle, TCM practitioners often develop skills that allow them to interpret signs your body is telling you before illness symptoms appear.

Five common types of TCM

As with many other forms of medicine, there are different practices that make up TCM. In this article, we take a brief look at the four most common types of TCM found in the city.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture has long been a key component of Chinese medicine and involves inserting hair-thin needles into the body in strategic locations based on different ailments or medical concerns being experienced by the patient. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Traditional Chinese medicine explains acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy or life force — known as qi or chi (CHEE) — believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in your body. By inserting needles into specific points along these meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will re-balance.”

Here in Hong Kong practitioners will often use acupuncture to alleviate symptoms including:

  • Vomiting caused by chemotherapy or postoperative recovery
  • Pain in the mouth and teeth
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Headaches
  • Pain from labour
  • Lower back pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Cramps

Interestingly, many physiotherapists will actually use acupuncture to help promote muscle recovery or pain relief.

Bone setting

Bone setting is the manipulation of joints, tendons, and ligaments to rectify the misaligned parts of the skeletal system. It forms the basis for the development of modern chiropractic and osteopathy.

Through manipulating fractured bones, ruptured sinew, and muscles, bonesetters are able to treat bone fractures, concussions, sprains, soft tissues problems, and even joint dislocations. The treatment can also be used to treat other symptoms that modern chiropractic or osteopathy do not primarily target, such as stomach ache, dizziness, and menstrual pain.

Keep in mind that some bone setting manipulations are not as gentle as western physiotherapy and can be very painful, especially if it’s your first time!

Cupping therapy

As with other forms of TCM, Cupping is not a “new” practice, in fact, it has been around in some form or another since at least 1,550 BC where it was described in a medical text from Egypt. These days the practice has evolved into two major methods used by most practitioners:

  • Dry cupping – Placing cups (usually made from glass) onto the skin and heating them with a flame until a vacuum is created, pulling the skin up.
  • Wet cupping – Using the above method combined with controlled bleeding.

Regardless of which type you receive, you will usually be left with large red circles where the cups were placed. What type you get will be determined by the practitioner and your current symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms cupping is used to treat include:

  • Blood disorders
  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Eczema and acne
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Migraine
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Bronchial congestion caused by allergies and asthma

While Western medicine practitioners generally believe that cupping will not usually cure ailments by itself, it is often used in conjunction with other forms of TCM to alleviate symptoms or even promote healing.

Qigong

One of the main differences between TCM and Western medicine is that it doesn’t just focus on healing what ails you, but also on the mind and spirit. Qigong (Chee-Gong), meaning cultivating energy, is a perfect embodiment of this idea. According to the NQA, “Qigong practices can be classified as martial, medical, or spiritual” and can be used for health maintenance, healing, and increasing vitality.

When practicing Qigong, you will notice that there are three key elements you focus on: posture, breathing, and mental focus. Together each movement revolves around your Qi or life force, and can help bring a more holistic element to your healing.

In Hong Kong many people practice Qigong to achieve the following benefits:

  • Increased self-confidence
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Improved balance
  • Boosted immune system
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Reduced bone density loss ratio

Herbal Medicine

In Hong Kong, it can feel like there are almost as many herbal medicine stores as there are western-style pharmacies, making it the most common type of TCM available in town. For many in the city, the herbal store is usually the first place to go when one is feeling sick, especially with a cold or similar maladies. These stores sell a wide variety of herbs for an equally wide variety of illnesses and are usually staffed by knowledgeable and accredited Chinese Herbal Medicine professionals.

Being in line with TCM principles, herbal medicines are often not used to treat particular symptoms. Instead, they are used to treat the whole body by improving body-wide functions, such as blood circulation and the immune system.

Like western pharmaceuticals there are a wide variety of herbs used in treatment, some of which can be harmful to your health should you not follow instructions on how to use them properly. Because of this, the Hong Kong government has a licensing system in place with shops being required to apply for, and display, a license should they wish to sell certain types of herbs that are listed under the Chinese Medicine Ordinance as Schedule 1 or Schedule 2.

Schedule 1 herbs are highly toxic if not taken correctly and actually require a prescription from a licensed Chinese Medical practitioner to purchase. Schedule 2 herbs do not require a prescription, but it is recommended that you consult with your physician or TCM practitioner before taking them.

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How to choose a Chinese Medicine practitioner in Hong Kong

Currently, there are over 7,000 TCM practitioners in Hong Kong. You can find an updated list of all registered Chinese medicine practitioners in Hong Kong on the Chinese Medicine Council’s website

For public Chinese Medicine clinics, you can search through the list of Chinese Medicine Clinics cum Training and Research Centres, which provide quota-based Government subsidized services to eligible persons.

For private Chinese Medicine practitioners, you can refer to the list of registered Chinese medicine practitioners, or go to private hospitals with TCM services, such as Gleneagles Hospital, St. Teresa’s Hospital and Hong Kong Baptist Hospital.

As TCM is a governed industry in Hong Kong, all TCM practitioners must be approved by the government and meet set standards as defined and governed by the Chinese Medicine Ordinance. For instance, all TCM practitioners “must have completed an undergraduate degree course in Chinese medicine practice approved by the Chinese Medicine Practitioners Board of the Chinese Medicine Council of Hong Kong.” On top of the degree, they are also required to pass a licensing exam.

Largely because of this governance, if you seek medical care or advice from a TCM specialist, there is a high chance that they are trained and capable in their field.

How much does TCM treatment cost?

As is the case with other health practitioners, the cost of TCM treatment varies greatly, depending on the location and service you opt for.

While a one-off consultation generally costs between HKD $120 and HKD $300 in most areas of Hong Kong, an all-inclusive Chinese medicine program (for example, consultation + acupuncture treatment + herbs prescriptions) in a high-end clinic can set you back anywhere from HKD $1,100 to HKD $2,000.

Chinese Medicine Clinics cum Training and Research Centres is another option for more affordable TCM treatment. For general consultation (including prescribed Chinese Medicine products for no more than 5 days), treatment-related acupuncture, bone setting, and Tui Na, each item costs only HKD $120 for every attendance.

Does health insurance cover TCM?

TCM continues to achieve great strides in Hong Kong, with the city’s first state-funded Chinese Medicine Hospital to be opened in 2024. Due to its increasing popularity in the city, many health insurance providers have started to implement insurance coverage benefits for traditional Chinese medicine in some plans. 

The key thing to be aware of here is that plans that do cover TCM may not cover all forms of TCM. For example, one plan will cover acupuncture and herbal medicine, but won’t cover visits to Qigong practitioners, while another plan may only cover acupuncture. 

Beyond that, plans often have a limit to the number of visits they will cover or the cost for each treatment. It would be beneficial to read the coverage documentation that came with your plan before you seek out any care from a Chinese medicine practitioner.

If you are looking for a new health insurance plan and will be visiting a TCM practitioner this year, visit our plans page to learn more about our plans and book a meeting. With our health insurance experts here in Hong Kong, we can help you find a plan that meets your coverage needs. You can visit our site for free plan comparisons or a free quote today.

Content Strategist at Pacific Prime Hong Kong
Jessica Lindeman is a Content Strategist at Pacific Prime. She comes to work every day living and breathing the motto of "simplifying insurance", and injects her unbridled enthusiasm for health and insurance related topics into every article and piece of content she creates for Pacific Prime.

When she's not typing away on her keyboard, she's reading poetry, fueling her insatiable wanderlust, getting her coffee fix, and perpetually browsing animal Instagram accounts.
Jess Lindeman