Other Features: Teaching and Learning Moments
I visited a local temple on the birthday of the God of Herbal Medicine with a visiting scholar who was to speak at a faculty development workshop on medical education scholarship in Taiwan. In addition to a shrine to the God of Herbal Medicine, the temple complex also housed shrines to many of the other popular Chinese gods and goddesses. One such shrine is dedicated to the God of Medicine, to whom worshipers pray for good health. At the peak of the SARS outbreak, the Taiwanese people looked to him to ward off the disease. Another shrine is dedicated to the Goddess of Birth, who is worshipped by infertile couples and eager-to-be grandparents. Students hoping for good grades pray before the statue of Confucius. In addition, the hall is dedicated to Buddha, who is said to reduce the material desires of those who pray to him.
Our guide at the temple, who lived in the United States for a decade, explained how these religious beliefs differ from the monotheistic beliefs of the West. I recalled what my high school history teacher had told me about the introduction of Christianity to mainland China. He said that the Chinese people welcomed the idea of Jesus by inviting missionaries to add a statue of Christ to the array of gods already on display in their temples.
The introduction of Western biomedicine into non-Western settings has been compared to the dissemination of Christianity. In this analogy, Western medicine is the monotheistic religion, hospitals the churches in disguise, and physicians the priests preaching that the one true path to salvation is Western biomedicine. However, in much the same way that the Taiwanese people pray to an array of gods, patients look to multiple systems of medicine for achieving and maintaining good health.
In the United States, cultural competency training is required in both medical schools and residency programs with the hope that physicians will learn to adequately treat patients with diverse backgrounds. Yet, current pedagogy has evolved from this multicultural approach to a system that promotes Western biomedical practices over all others.
What, then, can we learn from the Taiwanese temples devoted to more than one god? We must adopt a medical system in which many different approaches can exist together. Just as the Taiwanese people accept the limitations of each of their gods, they also understand the limitations of Western biomedicine. If one approach is not successful, they turn to alternative treatments. Cultural competency training, then, should not preach a monotheistic belief in Western biomedicine but an approach that incorporates many different systems of medicine, just as the Taiwanese temples feature shrines to many different gods.
Ming-Jung Ho, MD, DPhil
Dr. Ho is associate professor, Department of Social Medicine, National Taiwan University College of Medicine, Taipei, Taiwan; (firstname.lastname@example.org).