WHO Shines a Light on Traditional Medicine

TOKYO—Traditional medicine could gain a bit of scientific rigor from a new World Health Organization project to draft an International Classification of Traditional Medicine (ICTM) that gets under way here tomorrow.

The classification is intended to be a unified, global set of statistical standards across diverse traditional approaches to health care. It will include data on herbal remedies, acupuncture, moxibustion, manual therapies and exercises, among others. ICTM will join the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and other WHO standards used to compare health care practices across disciplines and borders. Researchers have used ICD to gather information on the efficacy of modern medicines, said Molly Meri Robinson, a classifications specialist at WHO. "An equivalent tool has not existed for traditional medicine," but the new project is designed to fill that gap, she said at a kick-off press conference here today.

Shanthi Pal, a WHO drug quality and safety official, said "in many countries, people turn to traditional medicines as their first line of treatment." She added that around the world significant numbers of people suffering chronic and terminal illnesses resort to traditional remedies, often in addition to conventional drug regimens, in an understandable search for cures and palliatives. Standardized reporting could boost patient safety by identifying traditional treatments and combinations of traditional and conventional medications that have adverse effects. Conversely, the data could pinpoint remedies worthy of more intensive investigation, several researchers here said.

Narantuya Samdan, a traditional medicine advisor in WHO's Western Pacific Regional Office, said that 18 of the region's 37 countries have national policies recognizing a role for traditional medicine, including insurance coverage in some cases. China, Japan, and Korea have historically long and well-documented traditional health practices, she said, while in other countries, traditional cures are in the realm of local lore practiced by small and sometimes isolated indigenous groups.

Harmonizing these disparate approaches is a challenging task, all speakers here today agreed. T. Bedirhan Üstün, who heads WHO's efforts in classifications, said that because of the lack of standardized information, traditional medicine falls on "the dark side of health care." ICTM will bring these traditional approaches "into the light of science," he said.

WHO has held several preparatory meetings but a team of experts is set to start drafting the classification here tomorrow. They hope to complete the ICTM in time for it to be adopted at the May 2014 World Health General Assembly.