Masters in Chinese Medicine before Medical School?

Hi all,

I’m set to enter a post-baccalaureate program next year at Rutgers, New Brunswick, in which I’ll hopefully cram my 8 core sciences and finish the MCAT using this Summer, Fall, next Spring, and perhaps some of next Summer. By Summer 2005, I hope to be ready to send in an application to medical schools.

I’m very interested in studying Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM, including acupuncture, herbology, tuina massage) in addition to my Western medical studies. An instructor at Maryland’s Integrative Medicine program advised me to try to get some basic training in TCM for 1-2 years before entering Western medical school, and then later expand on the TCM after receiving my M.D. Having experience with learning TCM prior to entering medical school might also give me a broader perspective on things that I’d learn at med school.

There are Masters programs in TCM in the U.S. that take approximately 3 years of time, and which have prerequisites that will be more than covered by the post-bac program that I am attending next year. Considering that the year after my post-bac will be “free” (2005-2006, in which I will be applying to medical schools), here’s my question: Would it be a good idea to enter a TCM Masters program immediately after taking the MCAT, and apply to medical school while I am attending this program? Since the Masters program is only 3 years long, I can be applying to medical school during that time without exceeding the 3-year shelf life of the MCAT score.

On the plus side, this unusual route might even be an advantage for my med school application as it will provide me with unique, non-Western academic and clinical experience in the healthcare field. However, I fear that med schools might be concerned that I am leaving such a large gap of time between finishing my post-bac/MCAT and applying to medical school.

What do you guys think–could I split it up this way to optimize my time management? Or should I just wait to take my post-bac/MCAT + apply to med school after first finishing my Masters in TCM? Or should I wait to attend TCM school after first finishing my post-bac/MCAT and immediately getting my M.D.?



Keep in mind, if you are in a Masters program, med schools require you to finish before matriculating into med school.
I was wondering… how much $$$ is the master’s program? Plus you said it may help you get a broader prespective when you are in med school… I would wonder about that. Suppose you just spent 3 years learning alternitives and then you are in med school having them tell you to treat something their way… where will that leave you? I mean, will you have difficulty implementing their way verses the way you spent 3 ways learning. I may not be making sense and maybe someone else can answer this, but I am thinking about a friend of mine.
She was into alternantive medicine and theories. When she got to med school she found herself torn between what they were teaching her and what she felt she knew about alternatives. She was forced to do things the med schools way and she told me once… “Sometimes I wish I never learned alternatives, because I can’t utilize them in med school.” True story. She is a MSIV now and has pushed herself away from the alternative medicine. She said she might go back to it when she is done with residency, but for now it is over in her mind. Maybe her story is not the norm and the masters will make you a better doctor.

Hey Amy,
Thanks for the response. Regarding the issue of having to finish the Masters before matriculating into medical school, I was hoping that within the 3-year span of TCM school and the 3-year shelf-life of my MCAT, I could apply to medical school (perhaps in the 2nd year of TCM school) and then defer my matriculation 'til just after I receive my Masters. I hope that’d work. . .
I think a Masters program in TCM here is somewhere in the vicinity of $50,000 overall. Somewhat expensive, but I might be able to offset its influence on my post-M.D. debt situation by attending state medical school, which I am told costs approximately half of what out-of-state medical school does.
As for the question of alternative medicine perspectives making it very tough for me to accept Western medicine teachings, this is a difficult issue that I have been puzzling over for some time. The Chinese doctor working at Maryland’s med school had told me that many students, upon entering Western medical school without any experience with TCM, often become adamantly set in their ways of thinking about medicine by the time that they receive their M.D. degrees. Taking just a few years to get experience with TCM might allow me to keep my mind open, according to him. . . Although I do certainly dread running into the dilemma that your friend hit. Oy!

That is a bunch of money on top of what you will spend in med school. I hope you can go instate because you are right, out of state would cost to much on top of that.
I am not sure about them letting you defer. The med school might tell you to finish and then apply, but I am not totally sure. I have yet to run across anyone who got a deferment to finish another program. You should definitly check into that possiblity before you decide anything.
Good luck.

I was interested in Chinese medicine as well. I took two years of Chinese language and spent a lot of time asking questions about Chinese medicine. What I kept hearing over and over again from Chinese people was that Chinese medicine is a family trade, passed from generation to generation. Coming into it as an adult was seen as a little suspicious.
It’s a philosophy of the energy of the body. In ancient China a doctor was paid to keep his patients well; if a patient got sick, the doctor wasn’t paid. Traditional chinese medicine ephasizes a totally different idea of the body than allopathic medicine does. I think if you’re truely interested in learning Chinese medicine, you should both learn to speak and read Chinese and intern in China or Taiwan.
I think a 3 year program in the States would be wasting your money. You talk about being worried about becoming closed minded - but is it worth $50,000 to convince yourself you’re open minded?

Hey Orb,
Thanks for the warnings. The way that I got introduced to Chinese medicine is through researching the craft for my undergrad thesis. Although the ancient tradition was to pass down medicine secrets from generation to generation in the family, this antiquated custom is being replaced by more modern training methods today. In China, they completely integrate Western and Traditional Chinese medicine in the hospitals. There are 7-year medical schools for both kinds of medicine, and the two types of doctors that are trained through these programs (e.g., WM and TCM M.D.s) are accorded equal medical authority and respect in China. Most hospitals seem to have large numbers of both types of doctors on staff, and they cooperate. Just about every patient admitted to these hospitals receives a combination of some TCM and some WM treatment, which seems to produce good results.
Based on the reading that I’ve done and some personal experience with taking Chinese medicine and seeing its benefits, I’m pretty convinced that TCM has its scientific merits. I guess I won’t be spending $50,000 in a Masters program to “convince” myself that I’m open-minded per say, but rather to give myself an experience that will help me keep my mind open and show me a side of healthcare that I probably wouldn’t experience in medical school here.
I am close to fluent in Chinese and have basically double-majored in it during my undergrad, so I conceivably could go to China or Taiwan to study TCM. . . But that might not be as convenient for my family situation. That’s why I’ve been trying to look into Masters programs here. Anyway, it seems like TCM is slowly gaining credibility in the United States, and both Chinese and American schools of TCM welcome adult students of the craft. I haven’t heard of adult students being viewed suspiciously by the Chinese medical community–but could you elaborate on where you learned about this situation?

You bring up good points, and I’m interested in integrative medicine too. My sources were not from the Chinese medical community, they were just “regular” Chinese people I’ve talked to. So take what I’ve said with a grain of salt. I’m also under the understanding that in China, traditional chinese doctors and western doctors work side by side; however, I think each individual doctor choses one modality over another.
I understand your desire to see another side of healthcare, but I think right now you need to focus your education on one or the other. What I see you doing is akin to going to nursing school and going to medical school and wanting to be both a nurse and a doctor at the same time. Correct me if this analogy is wrong!
If you’re really interested in practicing Chinese medicine AND western medicine, what I would suggest is to completely finish your allopathic training, and then study Chinese medicine.
Good luck!

Hey Orb,
Yep! You’re definitely right about doctors in China choosing to specialize in either Western medicine or TCM, although I’m told that their M.D. coursework involves getting thorough groundwork in both sides before making a choice.
Since it’s not this way in the West, I suppose that completely studying one field and then learning about the other (i.e., getting an M.D. first and then studying TCM afterwards) is the conventional way to go. I realize I might be spreading myself a little thin by trying to study a little TCM before getting the M.D. However, the approximately 1-year gap between taking my MCAT and matriculating into medical school is making me think hard about what I should do with that time. So, I figured that asking the OPMs would be the best way to get some non-conventional advice!
Spending 3 years and $50,000 for a Masters is kind of a big chunk of time/money. . . But, there are shorter, non-degree programs in China such as at Shanghai University of TCM that allow foreign medical students to study for either 1 or 2 years to get fundamental exposure to TCM (I’m told pre-medical students with a B.A. could be considered for this program too). I think such programs also exist in U.S. TCM schools, and require similar, albeit less stringent, pre-medical science background.
I guess the heart of my question is: Other than extra debt and time, would it hurt me to spend 1-3 years after taking my MCAT on studying TCM either in the U.S. or China while I do medical school applications? If this is a bad idea, then is it better to first get an M.D. and then study TCM, or first study TCM and then apply to medical school?

I wish I had better advice, I’m just a post bacc with lots of questions myself! I think what you’re attempting is really interesting. I think you shouldn’t count on a deferral entry to med school. So that might mean taking the MCAT in the middle of a three year TCM masters program. You seem really motivated, so this would be doable.
I think if I were an adcom member (although I have NO idea how they think!) I’d be more interested in a candidate who’s gone to China to study TCM. The 1-2 year programs in Shanghai seem very workable with your timeline. I think you’d get more out of that than studying a similiar program in the US, especially because you already speak Chinese. I think a three year program in the states might hurt your chances with adcoms, because of their inherent conservative nature. They’ll ask - what makes you sure you want to do allopathic medicine? I think you’d be able to sell them on the validity of a China chinese medicine experience as your pathway to becoming the best doctor you can be, in part because it’s novel. I’m not so sure about a US TCM school. I would ask people who’ve done non-science masters programs in between post bacc work and med school and nurses who’ve switched to medicine for their advice, they might be more help!

Dave, I don’t have a strong opinion either way on pursuing TCM before/after med school - except to say that the fact you’re intrigued by it and willing to spend time/money studying it means that you’ve already established a degree of open-mindedness that I hope you’ll hang onto during allopathic/osteopathic (which is also Western, of course!) training.
Actually as I write this I realize I do have an opinion of sorts… this is just one perspective and I offer it FWIW, but my perspective is that of someone who has reviewed files for an AdCom so I hope it might be helpful. When I review a file, I look at the AMCAS stuff first. In your case, if you pursue the TCM training, I’d see what would at that time be a two-year-old MCAT score. I’d think, “Huh, wonder why?” I’d continue reading and I’d find out that you actually completed all the stuff to get you ready for medical school two years ago, but you went into this TCM thing… and the next thing I’d ask myself is, "If he was so anxious to be a doctor, why’s he been messing around with TCM for so long?"
Now, let me add that such a question would be one of curiosity, NOT prejudgment, and hopefully your personal statement and other supporting materials would make a case such that I’d end up thinking, “Huh, he’s had a pretty interesting background.” But I do think there are some folks who might bristle a bit and interpret your timing as meaning that you are not as interested in medicine as you SHOULD be. (I recognize this isn’t fair, but remember, you can’t control what people think!) Hope this is making sense.
Could you “shadow” a TCM practitioner during that glide year, instead of jumping into the full program? Obviously it’s not the same as really studying it, I know, but neither would it cost you $50k and delay your med school matriculation by two years.
I guess I am thinking that your solution to the “glide year” problem is kinda extreme - a three-year solution for a one-year problem could end up creating a new set of problems.
Just my .02 and worth both pennies, I’m sure.

Sounds like you’ve got a lot going on.
Just wanted to throw more information in the pot for you to think about…
There are quite a few naturopathic schools in the US, I think 6 to be exact. Several of them offer programs for MDs that offer training in naturopathic medicine, including homeopathy, herbal remedies, and acupuncture, to name a few…
It might be something to consider.

As someone who has sat on an AdComm, I can assure you that the “concerns” that Mary alludes to are valid and reasonably likely to happen during file review and committee meeting discussion (either pre or post interview). A comment on a file review might be “Why Western medicine?” or “Seems like s/he is still casting about for a health career.” and so forth. I’m not at all sure that this would be primarily curiousity rather the judgmental. Please remember that with the enormous numbers of applications that med schools receive, they are looking for reasons to reduce the number applications that they need to review and applicants to interview.

Hi Seto, I don’t know too much about Chinese Medicine but the physicians and admission offices/premed advisors I’ve spoken to do seem to stress one thing - commitment to medicine. I realize that Chinese, homeopathic, and native american medicine are in fact related to medicine. I’m not sure it would actually hurt your application, but I’m not sure it would help either.
Do you really need to do both…couldn’t you just pursue the M.D./D.O. and make sure your practice encompasses Chinese medicine as well. But do you really need a formal program? I know of a vet that offer acupuncture as well as the traditional animal medicine. It can be done. I say this to anyone who is considering doing a joint/combined practice. I just wonder if it’s really necessary to do the formalities of both. I say this to people who want to get a JD/MD - if you want be a lawyer who focuses on health care law and/or medical malpractice, go to law school and focus your practice on that. If you want to be a doctor, who writes, teaches, sits on the bioethics committee - go to med school, write a couple of article, attend/give a couple of conferences in bioethics, medical law, etc. I just don’t think you really need to do both. It won’t hurt to get both, but it won’t help. And definitely for those people are considering a joint focus, I would always suggest going for the medical school first. After all, it is much more difficult to get into medical school, than law school or even TCM. Bc there are so many qualified applicants in the pool, they really want to know who is committed. I think other disciplines are less focused on this and are not so inundated with applications. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s certainly harder. If at all possible, I would go to medical school first, and if at the end of it all, you feel that the TCM is really necessary to enhance your practice, do that later.

Hey everyone,
Thanks for giving so many insightful opinions. iwant2bmd, yours is certainly a very valid one. If I did choose to integrate Western and Eastern medicine, I do strongly feel that extra, formal training in TCM (e.g., acupuncture, etc.) will be necessary to augment my practice, simply because the field is so rich with 2,000 years of theoretical and practical nuances that couldn’t possibly be learned with just a 200-hour board certification program for MDs. If I practiced TCM, I’d really like to master the craft. On the other hand, you make a sound argument when you say that doing/getting into medical school is probably the harder of the two endeavors, which is a good reason to do it first!
Mary and Judy, I also appreciate the adcom insider perspective that you’ve given me. It’s made me carefully reconsider trying to get too fancy with my glide year(s) issue.
I’ll probably have to wait to look into how I can balance my schedule after the 7 years of M.D. training are over, and see if I have time/money left over to do a TCM program somewhere at 32 years of age. Of course, I’d like to settle down here with a wife and kids before it’s too late, too!
Keep the perspectives coming, they are very helpful!
P.S. Does anybody have any detailed information about the status that the recently approved DAOM degree (Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine) will accord TCM practitioners among U.S. doctors? Do you think that Doctors of AOM (e.g., TCM doctors) will ever have comparable authority and freedom to what Western MDs have in this country?

Glad things here have been helpful to you. That is why OPM is so great.
I don’t see in the near future having the doc of AOM getting the same powers as the western docs have. I mean, look at how long the DOs have had to fight to get equal footing along with MDs. Maybe I am wrong, but I think people really have a hard time accepting things they just aren’t familiar with.

I too have a great interest in TCM. In fact I have been taking classes at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in order to understand the basics of the theory and points, etc. I am also studying in a Post Bacc program at the same time. For information about schools near you go to there is a link to that kind of info.
You are right. It is a healing system that has been in practice for thousands of years and is a different approach to the human condition. If you feel strongly about absorbing this understanding, go ahead and take the oriental medical courses. What you are looking for is the OM theory, five element theory, acupoint location and meridian theory, etc and not the “western science” classes that most TCM school also offer, since you will be getting those in other ways. If you called to the understanding that TCM offers, listen to it. I am taking these classes not because I believe they may enhance my chances at med school, in fact, as Mary and Judy have pointed out, there may be a prejudice against such a course of action but I have to listen to what is calling me and so…I am. It is that simple. I trust that I will be were I am supposed to be in the future. I hope this perspective helps.
All the best,

Hi Dave–
I just finished the first two years of a four-year TCM program out here in California. My plan was to do this program and then do pre-recs for med school and then med school. It was a difficult decision, but I just dropped out of the TCM program and will start on my pre-recs in January. My TCM program was about half western sciences and half traditional medicine courses, and I felt that all the classes in anatomy, pathophys., and western clinical medicine were not very detailed and not well taught. I was the only one in my class who really cared about learning that stuff, so the school never got any pressure to improve these courses. Also, these would be courses that would be covered in med school. So I decided to not finish the TCM program. I still have absolutely no regrets about spending the time and money doing the first two years though. I use the theory, acupressure, herbs, and tui na in my everyday life. The TCM really expanded the way I think about absolutely everything as well. (When it’s windy out I now understand why I’m dizzy and have a headache on the sides of my head.) So my plan is to do med school first and then go back and brush up on the TCM because I really do think having both is a really good combination. And if you’re an MD, you don’t have to be an LAc to practice in this country. Best of luck making this decision. Please let me know if I can be of any help to you during your process.

OM theory, five element theory, acupoint location and meridian theory
Here some other questions you might hear from an Admissions Committee (at least one that I was sitting on, should life ever come to such a pass!):
1. Are these theories falsifiable? This isn’t a question of “Western” science, but rather of science, plain and simple, which is how the Chinese themselves engineer clean water, the nuclear bomb, car design, and everything in between.
2. Do you believe that meridians or acupoints exist in the way that a red blood cell exists, as objects that live and die and can be isolated and measured? Or do you believe they exist in the way that the soul exists, a way of organizing your life that you can’t prove or disprove.
3. What is the definition of “healing” in this context. To wit: is it that the patient believes himself to be healthy, and then that’s the metric of success? Or is the patient judged healed by some measurement extrinsic to either the doctor or the patient’s judgment (like a lower temperature or a smaller tumor, etc.)