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— updated 2003-08-07


Review of HerbalThink-TCM software

(formerly "Traditional Chinese Herbal Sciences Self-Study Reference" v2.0.2 and "TCM Herbal Tutor" v3.0.4)

by Nigel Ogston, M.D.

(Huntsville, Ontario)

Subtopics on this page…

Copyright ©2003 by Nigel Ogston, M.D.; all rights reserved. Reprinted here with permission.

[Go to all HerbalThink-TCM user reviews]


This software is a combination of the previously print-published "Traditional Chinese Herbal Science: Volume 1 (The Language and Patterns of Life) and Volume 2 (Herbs Strategies and Case Studies)" written by Dr. Roger Wicke of the Rocky Mountain Herbal Institute, and a highly creative interactive computer based learning program "TCM Herbal Tutor".

Self-Study Reference

The texts, which constitute the database for the program, cover a comprehensive and integrated rational approach to TCM methodology, starting (Volume 1) with delineation of the holistic paradigm, and proceeding through an almost mathematical approach to the constuction of patterns based on Eight Principal Patterns, Vital Substances (or Fundamental Processes as they are termed), Six Pernicious Evils, Zang-Fu Organ Disharmony Patterns, Six-Level Exterior-Cold-Induced Evils, Four-Level Heat Evils, history taking, physical assessment, including tongue and pulse diagnosis, and record keeping. Volume 2 introduces the nosology and classification of herbs in the materia medica, with information on recognition, storage, and measurement of herbs, as well as references to taste and thermal properties and how these determine therapeutic effect. The remainder of Volume 2 is a materia medica of over 100 of the core herbs used most frequently, with detailed well researched and reliable information on therapeutic category, taste, thermal properties, channel and organ tropisms, primary and secondary functions, cautions and contraindications, dosage, toxicity, detailed preparation, and miscellaneous data including chemical composition, where known and relevant, and research results if available. Each chapter is amplified with case studies, and the appendices contain many useful tables and cross references to aid the student.

The manner of presentation of the material is incremental and logically consistent from the simplest levels (definitions of Heat, Cold, Deficiency, Excess, etc.) on up to the most complex levels of multifaceted disharmony patterns (which can always be logically reduced to subsets or composites of the basic patterns presented). The texts are concise and crisp. The reader gains confidence in his or her understading as they progress.

TCM Herbal Tutor

The TCM Herbal Tutor picks up from the text with a series of interactive games based on the information in the text, and powerfully assists the learner in the assimilation and understanding of the foundations of TCM methodology for accurate pattern assessment as well as facilitating rapid and exhaustive familiarity with the core herbs and traditional formulas in all the major therapeutic categories of TCM. This program works at any level from beginner student to professional practitioner. The program adapts itself to the capability and knowledge level of the user. Very few, if any, professional practitioners would not be challenged at some level by the degree of subtlety this program is able to demand of the user, but even the beginner can have fun and enjoy the experience of computer assisted learning as they expand their knowledge.

I confess that my fundamental bias is not toward computers, and that in the past I have greatly preferred print modes. Other software programs, purporting to simplify the approach to TCM, have done little to change that stance. This program, however, is unique and a genuinely pleasant surprise: it actually delivers far more than it promises, and keeps on delivering no matter what level you are working at. As the user progresses through Volumes 1 and 2 of Traditional Chinese Herbal Science, he or she assimilates the basic facts and concepts needed to think and work in the TCM environment. The learner begins to assemble the logical building blocks of pattern recognition which are repeated at higher levels and different combinations throughout the work, such that understanding of the various causes of disease and complex pattern recognition organically develops. This process happens not through rote memorization but through the meticulous assembly of key concepts and their logical and systematic elaboration repeated through all levels of the course. This much could be accomplished with just the book, but this is where the magic of computer assisted learning takes over. TCM Herbal Tutor challenges the users to test their knowledge and monitors their progress, suggesting appropriate games for their level of knowledge, based on performance. (There is actually a beginner level and a professional level encrypted within the software: After surpassing the limits of the beginner level the user can get an authorization password for accessing the professional level, for an upgrade fee.) The Tutor Study Advisor keeps track of the users performance in all the games and automatically prompts new games to match the students progress, as well as giving feedback in terms of a numerical score to the student to monitor their own progress.

Within each game, the software's ability to spot and concentrate on the user's area of weakness is uncanny. When errors are made, the software repeatedly presents the subject matter until you consistently get it right, without boredom, as the presentation of the material varies from time to time. In addition, the software appears to be designed to make sure the user is fully alert to subtle differences (as between "Frigid Extremities Decoction" and "Frigid Extremities Powder", for example), that could cause confusion; it presents the look-alikes or sound-alikes strategically where you have been accustomed to seeing the other. The games can deepen in scope and depth to cover essentially all of the information the professional practitioner needs to master to competently prescribe and create complex and flexible herbal formulas for the multifaceted patterns of disharmony seen in clinics daily.

As an inveterate book learner, I can honestly say that working with this computer assisted learning tool accelerates my learning and challenges me with little blind spots of ignorance in a way that books could never do, no matter how many times I read and re-read them. In fact, the only thing better than this would be to have a si-fu at your side night and day watching over your shoulder and guiding your learning path. Naturally, no learning program replaces supervised clinical experience, but for the serious student of Traditional Chinese Medicine or the practitioner who wishes to hone their knowledge and self-monitor, this program is ideal. It would be especially useful to those (like busy health professionals) who have high motivation but limited time or access for learning programs that require continuous attendance. It is truly possible to develop state-of-the-art knowledge of the factual basis of Chinese Medicine quickly and comprehensively with this program. Individuals showing competence with the program may, with further conditions, be eligible for certification through Rocky Mountain Herbal Institute. (See website or correspond with Dr. Wicke for details.)