East Meets West Michigan

October 3, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — “Bottles of herbs side by side on the supply shelves with prescriptive pharmaceuticals … Will we ever see such approaches in West Michigan?”

Less than three years ago that question on blending Eastern and Western medical practices was discussed in a forum held at the Wege Institute for Mind, Body and Spirit at Saint Mary’s hospital. Now the answer is yes. And much of the credit goes to the Wege Institute and to Dr. Jane Toot, director of the School of Health Professions at Grand Valley State University and one of the speakers at the forum.

Around the same time as the forum, GVSU was finalizing plans to begin a foreign exchange program in China for students in the School of Health Professions. Toot had visited hospitals in Beijing, Shanghai and Qui-Lin and observed Chinese physicians using Eastern and Western therapies in an integrative manner. The idea behind the exchange program was that students who study medicine, nursing and other health-care disciplines in Western institutions might benefit from learning about traditional Chinese medicine and how it might be used in conjunction with Western practices.

“It is important for GVSU students to have an exposure to Chinese medicine because the principles of Oriental medicine are coming closer and closer to the mainstream of Western medicine,” Toot told the Business Journal. “Chinese medicine is holistic and is particularly valuable in treating chronic conditions and in establishing effective preventive medicine routines. These are two areas which are going to require more and more attention as our population ages.”

That statement effectively summarizes the concept behind the Wege Institute. The center mixes contemporary Western treatments with traditional Oriental techniques such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage and reflexology. That combination “brings the best of both worlds of health care to you and your family,” according to the center’s Web site.

John Ritch, the executive director of the Wege Institute, serves on the professional advisory committee for Toot’s school at GVSU. When she was planning the exchange program, she asked Ritch if the institute would like to get involved — allowing Chinese students to learn about the brand of complementary medicine practiced at Saint Mary’s Health Care. Ritch eagerly signed on to the plan.

Since the program began in 2003, Chinese students have toured the Wege Institute and GVSU, and groups from Saint Mary’s and GVSU have gone to visit China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing.

“People have a choice there — whether they want traditional Chinese medicine or Western medicine,” said Dr. Irv Marcus, a doctor of Oriental medicine at the Wege Institute. “They’ve found that if you take the best of both, just as we’re doing here now, that it benefits the patient and the community.”

Marcus visited the Chinese hospital in 2004 and 2005. The relationship between the Wege Institute and China-Japan Friendship Hospital was originally intended simply to be one of mutual hospitality for the exchange groups. However, much larger collaborative opportunities have emerged, Ritch said.

“Their physicians and practitioners have the opportunity now to come here and spend anywhere from a few weeks to a full three, four, five months. And we would immerse them in how our system works and how we’re doing what we call ‘integrative medicine,’” he said.

What is now a handful of visiting professionals will likely turn into a formal, ongoing fellowship-type program where Saint Mary’s will host several practitioners each year.

“It can be a real exchange of ideas and practices,” said Marcus. For example, some of the doctors from the Chinese hospital may come to Saint Mary’s to learn more about Western sports medicine practices, as Beijing will host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Ritch and Marcus also are excited about the potential for collaborative research projects with China-Japan Friendship Hospital.

“They do lots of research. They have (what is) like their own Van Andel Institute connected to their hospital. So if we can be part of a research study … it’s another opportunity to make a connection there,” said Marcus.

Larger changes may come out of the program for GVSU, as well. Ritch said there has been talk of adding collaborative, graduate-level studies in alternative therapies or possibly a full Doctor of Oriental Medicine program. Should that come to pass, GVSU would have the only such program in the state.

That program could satisfy an increasing need. Studies have shown that the combination of alternative therapies with Western medicine is growing in popularity. Ritch believes the growing market is consumer-driven, and that health-care and educational institutions will begin reacting as Saint Mary’s and GVSU have.

As the collaboration between the university and the two hospitals grows, even more cross-cultural learning opportunities may arise. Ritch and Toot are both eager to see such opportunities arrive, but both also admit that they have already received much more from the collaboration than they had originally bargained for.

“I got into this rather haphazardly,” said Toot. “But it has been one of the best experiences of my life and I am pleased to see it grow.”    

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