By Alix Noble After years of being stigmatized as quack doctors and oddballs, practitioners of alternative medicine are getting a chance to prove themselves. Vancouver Hospital is supporting a new institute which aims to research alternative health practices such as herbology, naturopathy and acupuncture. The institute will be privately funded by the Tzu Chi Foundation of Canada, a Buddhist philanthropic organization, but Vancouver Hospital is providing the space, infrastructure support and a partnership grant. Many other Lower Mainland hospitals have lent their support to the institute. This is big news to Whistler acupuncturist Gordon Tees. "The biggest problem for us is lack of public awareness. This institute will give us more public exposure," says Tees. The new institute is the first of its kind in North America to be so closely affiliated with the western medicine community. Canada has generally lagged behind other countries in terms of acknowledging alternative medicine, says Tees. But in B.C. a large Oriental population encourages an acceptance of treatments like acupuncture. There are also influential people behind the proposal for the institute, in particular pediatric specialist Dr. Wah Jun Tze, who won the Order of Canada for promoting children's health around the world. Tze's reputation as a medical doctor helped convince the hospital board of the validity of alternative treatments. Acupuncturist Tees has in the past had conflicts with medical doctors who don’t approve of his medical beliefs. However, since opening his practice in Whistler last year Tees says he has only had "signs of encouragement from the medical community. I haven’t had any negative feelings expressed to me." Although he doesn’t have a formal relationship with the Whistler Health Centre, Tees says that some doctors do recommend acupuncture to their patients. "(The new institute) will also put us in a better environment with the medical system," says Tees. "As there is an increase in awareness, doctors will be more willing to recommend." About 95 per cent of Tees’ patients are locals and the majority are women, most with chronic health problems. "At Whistler, there's a big demand for alternative healing and a large enough population base to support it. A lot of locals are looking for an alternative to western medicine — people realize there are other means of maintaining health." There are currently no national or provincial requirements for those opening an acupuncture practice, but provincial standards are being drawn up. Many hope that the scrutiny the new institute will bring to alternative medicine will cause standards and regulations to come to the fore. With eight or nine schools between Vancouver and Victoria, B.C. has more schools of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) than any province. Tees extols the benefits of TCM. Massage, acupuncture, herbology and diet evaluation form the backbone of TCM. It’s more economical than other treatments, says Tees, and the fast recovery time for patients means less time off work. Also, there are none of the side effects associated with drug treatments. But does it work? Tees claims it does, particularly when used to complement western medical treatments. The Vancouver institute aims to design experiments which will scientifically prove the benefits to the Western medical community. Tees is sceptical, however, that the results of alternative medicine can be proven by holding them up to western scientific standards. Alternative treatments tend to be preventative and holistic, unlike western medicine which focuses on treating symptoms. Since acupuncture and herbology look at the mind and entire body, it could be difficult to isolate variables for research. Although acupuncture and TCM are not covered by B.C. health insurance, Tees encourages people to consider it as an option. "An individual's health should be the major investment of your life. We think nothing of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on homes, on cars, on clothes. How much do we spend on our health?"