Traditional medicine

Traditional medicine

  • Traditional medicine is the sum total of knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures that are used to maintain health, as well as to prevent, diagnose, improve or treat physical and mental illnesses.
  • Traditional medicine that has been adopted by other populations (outside its indigenous culture) is often termed alternative or complementary medicine.
  • Herbal medicines include herbs, herbal materials, herbal preparations, and finished herbal products that contain parts of plants or other plant materials as active ingredients.
  • In many developed countries, 70% to 80% of the population has used some form of alternative or complementary medicine (e.g., acupuncture).
  • Traditional medicine can treat various infectious and chronic conditions. For example, new antimalarial drugs were developed from the discovery and isolation of artemisinin from Artemisia annua L., a plant used in China for almost 2,000 years.
  • Counterfeit, poor quality, or adulterated herbal products in international markets are serious patient safety threats.

The situation

  • During China’s 3,000 year history, traditional medicine has pioneered interventions such as the use of herbal remedies and acupuncture, as well as diet, exercise, awareness of environmental influences on health, as part of a holistic approach to health.
  • Traditional Chinese medicine is fully integrated into the national health service system.
  • The Government gives special attention and support to further development of traditional medicine and its contribution to national efforts to control diseases and maintain the health of the people.
  • The Government has developed a new national strategy for the development of traditional medicine, focusing on the enforcement of national laws and regulations, the modernization of medicine through research, standardization of traditional medicine and evidence-based practice.
  • There are seven WHO Collaborating Centres for Traditional Medicine associated with the WHO programme for traditional medicine.


  • There is a need to strengthen law enforcement capacity, as well as the registration and regulation of traditional medicine, assessing safety and efficacy, and ensuring quality.
  • In addition, traditional standards or guidelines for clinical trials need to be further developed to show the efficacy of traditional products. Evidence-based testing and research for traditional Chinese medicine products are still needed.

WHO's response

  • WHO provides technical support to China to promote the rational use of traditional medicine, to strengthen legislation, regulation and registration, to set up research capacity for research, and to improve quality control of herbal medicines.
  • Chinese experts were also actively involved in WHO's initiative to support the rational use of traditional medicine and its integration into national health systems in other Member States where appropriate.
  • WHO has been working with the Ministry of Health of China and State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine on key priorities for traditional Chinese medicine, including increasing policy support, strengthening research on key issues, building capacity for research, training doctors and increasing access and quality of services in rural and urban communities.
  • In 2008-2009, the areas that WHO supported were:
    • Traditional medicine intervention on prevention and treatment of hepatitis B related chronic liver diseases;
    • A study of the use of traditional medicine on prevention, medical care and promotion of human health;
    • Developing basic standards for the traditional medicine education for overseas students.
  • In 2010-2011, WHO continued to support traditional medicine intervention on preventing and promoting human health by developing relevant standards, as well as an evidence-based pharmaceutical database for non-communicable disease.