Nursing students learn about traditional Chinese medicine on visit to Hong Kong

Six students in the College of Nursing, along with Dean Paula Milone-Nuzzo (right) and faculty member Pam Lawson (second from right), visited Hong Kong for two weeks to attend university classes and learn about traditional Chinese medicine. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Even in today’s high-tech health care world, future professionals have much to learn from ancient medical practices. That was the takeaway for six Penn State nursing students who recently traveled to Hong Kong to learn about Chinese health care and nursing education.

Through a reciprocal arrangement with The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the College of Nursing sends up to 10 students there each winter for two weeks of studying and sightseeing. In return, 10 CUHK nursing students visit Penn State each year during the fall semester.

One of the trip’s highlights was learning about traditional Chinese medicine, said Pam Lawson, a College of Nursing faculty member who accompanied the students on the trip.

“The nurse practitioner students (at CUHK) demonstrated many forms of Chinese medicine they were studying at the time,” Lawson said. “Several of the Penn State students volunteered to have them practice certain techniques, such as cupping, acupuncture and the use of incense.”

Caitlin Brennan, a nursing major studying at Penn State Hershey, learned about acupuncture and chiropractic care, along with a few techniques not as well known in the West, such as tongue diagnosis.

“The cool thing is they look at the tongue—what color it is, what kind of coating it has—to see what’s wrong with different parts of the body,” said Brennan, a senior from Whippany, New Jersey.

Another ancient practice, cupping therapy, is used to relieve flu symptoms, she said.

“They take something that looks like a mini-fishbowl with a hole in the bottom and apply it to your back,” she says. “It suctions the skin, leaving a red ring.”

Practitioners of cupping therapy believe the suction mobilizes blood flow in order to promote healing. In addition to helping with flu symptoms, it is meant to soothe back pain, said Nancy Curry, a senior nursing major who went on the trip.

Another traditional therapy, moxibustion, is used to stimulate circulation to promote smoother blood flow and qi (a Chinese term for energy flow), added Curry, a Hershey native who is studying at University Park her final year.

Besides the primer on traditional medicine, students learned much about how the Chinese health care system differs from the one in the United States. They visited an ambulance depot, observed cross-matching of specimens in a Red Cross testing lab and learned about the technology used by the Department of Health for life-threatening disasters.

“The students discussed how the system worked several years ago during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS),” Lawson said. “This was a major health concern for Hong Kong in 2002 and 2003.”

Comparing the health care systems of different countries was an integral part of the learning experience. Students from China, Taiwan, Australia, England and Denmark came together to discuss how the practice of nursing is taught in their home countries. Students from each country did a presentation about their own health care system, with the American students focusing on the Affordable Care Act, said Curry.

The students’ different ways of learning often became apparent when they attended CUHK classes together, Lawson noted.

“In many classes, the Hong Kong students did not understand English,” she said. “Then the faculty would speak in Cantonese, and the students from other countries could not understand what was being said.”

Lawson added that the Chinese students must take all their exams in English.

Such challenges of cross-cultural communication may be daunting for some. But for Brennan, who now has “a ton” of new Australian friends on Facebook, meeting and making friends was the best part of the trip.

“It was fun to see how nursing around the world is the same, but also different,” she said.

Last Updated March 30, 2015