Herbalist-Mathematicians Transform Clinical Herbal Education With Game Software

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Scientists and engineers at the Rocky Mountain Herbal Institute have developed interactive game software that helps health professionals and students learn the ancient art of traditional Chinese herbal medicine. The software can simulate the ambiguities and randomness of symptom clusters appearing in real people, improving herbalists' clinical skills.

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Clinical skills in Chinese herbology, much like skill in playing chess, cannot be achieved merely by memorizing game rules. With HerbalThink-TCM, skill is achieved by playing numerous games over time.

Scientists and engineers at the Rocky Mountain Herbal Institute have developed interactive game software that helps health professionals and students learn the ancient art of traditional Chinese herbal medicine. The software can simulate the ambiguities and randomness of symptom clusters appearing in real people, improving herbalists' clinical skills.

Roger Wicke, PhD, director of RMHI, says that many authors and teachers of Chinese herbology have attempted to simplify it by "medicalizing" it, creating simplistic charts that purport to match appropriate herbs and formulas to specific medical diseases. ("What herb is good for disease X?") However, he believes that this is the most common reason why people may experience lack of results or side effects from herbs.

A guiding principle of Chinese herbology is that one must consider the body's entire pattern of responses to disease and environmental stressors as a first step toward determining appropriate diet and herbal formulas. Wicke explains that while many herbalists endorse this idea, which has been central to the holistic health movement, it is difficult to achieve in practice. Whether in modern medicine or Chinese herbology, an individual's total set of symptoms rarely matches a textbook pattern or definition, making evaluation of clinical strategy options challenging.

Wicke decided to call the new software "HerbalThink-TCM", because it challenges users with clinically relevant puzzles that require thought and deliberation rather than mere recall of isolated facts. Users must identify patterns within the random variations and ambiguous meanings of real symptoms. For example, in a case of poor appetite, loose bowels, and chronic fatigue, one must decide if this cluster of three symptoms provides enough information to choose an appropriate herbal formula, according to traditional theory. In this example, it does not. At least 12 distinct patterns could potentially explain these three symptoms, with different herbal formulas being appropriate for each pattern, so one must ask questions that will help identify the true underlying pattern. The software evaluates users' skill in asking targeted questions that reveal the correct pattern most quickly.

Palpation of the radial pulse at the wrist for qualities indicative of specific clinical patterns has historically been an important tool of traditional Chinese herbalists. HerbalThink-TCM includes a module called the TCM Pulse Simulator, which allows users to visually simulate, in three dimensions and time, the tactile sensation that a specific pulse would create beneath one's fingertips. These simulations quickly clarify confusing and ambiguous terminology that has until now made learning traditional pulse palpation methods time-consuming and difficult. Users of the software can easily simulate over 900 million distinct pulse variations by changing the values of 12 independent pulse parameters, such as rate, rhythm irregularities, strength, pulse time profile, depth, etc.

Although computer simulators have been used to train medical students for several decades, Chinese herbology is often taught by rote memorization, as it has been for over a thousand years. According to Wicke, "Clinical skills in Chinese herbology, much like skill in playing chess, cannot be achieved merely by memorizing game rules. With HerbalThink-TCM, skill is achieved by playing numerous games over time. Users gain experience from their mistakes with simulated clinical puzzles before they ever begin to practice on real people."

HerbalThink-TCM has been used in RMHI courses since the year 2000. Wicke explains that in the early years it was optional, but users' clinical skills improved so markedly that he began requiring it of all his students.

Wicke earned his Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1980. He began studying Chinese herbology with Chinese herbalists in San Francisco for personal health reasons. Since 1992, he has collaborated with Curt Kruse, his nephew and a former geophysicist with a background in artificial intelligence, to develop HerbalThink-TCM.

This latest software upgrade, version 4.0, incorporates information as diverse as herbal pharmacology and phytochemistry databases, applied mathematics of clinical pattern recognition, and the effects of music on health. Wicke has found that listening to certain types of music can enhance students' creative thinking and pattern-recognition abilities. The course material accompanying the software explains how the same patterns that Chinese herbalists use to choose herbs and formulas can be applied to understanding why a piece of music might give one person a headache, yet trigger profound emotional insights in another.

RMHI plans periodic major upgrades in the HerbalThink-TCM database and game software over the next decade. Wicke and Kruse evaluate feedback from student users and observe their effectiveness in analyzing real clinical cases to help refine the software and integrate new features.

With the downturn in the world economy and increasing tuition fees at colleges and universities, RMHI believes that there will be an increasing demand for herbal distance-learning education and interactive educational software. Herbs have provided an inexpensive mode of health care for the world's people throughout human history. RMHI hopes that its software will make this knowledge accessible to aspiring herbalists who would not otherwise be able to afford tuition at a full-time college, as well as health professionals who cannot take off from work to attend classes.

A free version of the software, with access to the first 85 hours of RMHI's Level-1 course, is available for download from RMHI's website: http://www.rmhiherbal.org

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Roger Wicke, Ph.D.
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