By Emily Baer
Western medical institutions largely have eschewed Tibetan medical practices such as blood letting, medicinal baths and sinus steam treatment because of differences in methods of treatment evaluation, according to Mr. Dorjee, Director of the Amdo (Qinghai) Tibetan Medical Research Institute and Vice President of the Amdo (Qinghai) Province Tibetan Medical Hospital. In a lecture Monday, “Science Between Tradition and Modernity: Clinical Research and Tibetan Medicine,” Dorjee said that he is committed to determining how to evaluate and promote Tibetan medicine in the Western world.
Dorjee said Western medical standards cannot adequately evaluate Tibetan treatment outcomes. This discrepancy could explain the relative scarcity of Tibetan medicine in the United States compared to China and Southeast Asia, Dorjee said.
As an example, Dorjee cited a recent study of 160 rheumatoid arthritis patients performed by the Tibetan Medical Hospital. While the study found that the hospital’s treatments were effective 90 percent of the time according to Tibetan standards, a Western rheumatoid arthritis index indicated that the patients’ conditions had worsened.
“It’s hard, because the U.S. has a lot of restrictions,” Dorjee said. “Measuring the effectiveness of Tibetan medicine with a different [Western] yardstick may not work.”
Dorjee added that he was interested in having Dartmouth students come to Tibetan hospitals to address the differences.
Tibetan medical practice dates back to the second century A.D., but its development peaked during the 17th century with the creation of a text known as the Crystal Mirror, Dorjee said. The theories and pharmacology enumerated in the book are still in use today, according to Dorjee.
Tibetan medicine is based upon the delicate relationship between the five elements: earth, water, fire, wind and space; three Nyi-pas: wind, bile and phlegm; and two temperatures: hot and cold, according to Dorjee. Treatments are prescribed to re-establish equilibrium of the elements, Nyi-pas and temperatures, he said.
Spirituality plays a significant role in Tibetan medicine, which is linked to Buddhism, and psychotherapy is a major treatment method, Dorjee said. He added that external treatment — such as surgery, blood letting and acupuncture — are used as a last option after journaling, behavior treatment and oral medicine.
Audience member William Rasmussen said he attended the lecture in order to observe the similarities between Tibetan medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, his own area of study. Ayurveda, a traditional form of Indian medicine, is more prevalent than Tibetan medicine in the United States, according to Rasmussen.
“The nice thing about Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicine is that they look at the body, mind and spirit,” Rasmussen said. “The advantage of that is that you often get to the core of the problem rather than simply addressing the symptoms.”
The Amdo Province Tibetan Medical Hospital, the largest hospital of Tibetan medicine, uses a variety of methods to address patients’ needs, according to Dorjee. Diagnostic methods include pulse reading and urine analysis, while treatment ranges from golden needle acupuncture to medicinal bathing used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, among other ailments. Dorjee spoke about the observable benefits of such medical treatments on the patients in his hospital.
Anthropology professor Sienna Craig said she will be looking for student involvement in a project she is beginning with Dorjee’s support. Craig is currently studying the way science is translated across cultures through a study of Hepatitis B in Tibetans.
“Tibetan medicine is still scientific — it’s just a different system,” Craig said.
The research institute and medical hospital that Dorjee directs are part of the larger Arura Group, whose mission is the preservation and continued study of Tibetan medicine. Other divisions of Arura include the Tibetan Medicine Culture Museum, the Shang Shung Institute and the Arura pharmaceutical company.