Homeopathy is among one of the most hotly debated and controversial of complementary medicines. It’s received a lot of negative press over the years, yet many people claim it has improved their health for the better.
Homeopathy was developed over 200 years ago by Samuel Hahnemann, based on the theory that like cures like. His belief was that a substance which causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people would cure similar symptoms in sick people. It also follows the principle that the lower the dose of medication, the greater its effectiveness. Many homeopathic products are so diluted that no molecules of the original substance remain.
The main controversy appears to stem from lack of robust scientific evidence for homeopathy, as it’s not possible to explain in scientific terms how a product containing little or no active ingredient can have any effect. Our current medical model is based on scientific knowledge of the body and uses treatments that have been proven effective through scientific research. When something appears outside this model or cannot be seen or measured it’s deemed as having insufficient scientific evidence. As there is no robust scientific evidence to show that homeopathic remedies lacking in pharmacologically active molecules can produce clinical effects, it generally gets classed as pseudoscience or quackery.
Homeopathy – there’s no scientific evidence
Just because science can’t observe and ‘prove’ it doesn’t mean to say homeopathy doesn’t work. We can assume it’s having a positive effect on some people’s health because the Homeopathy Research Institute tell us that in the UK, 10% of people use homeopathy. In some countries, homeopathy provides the basis of medical care. India is one such country.
In India, 100 million people depend solely on homeopathy for their medical care and there are over 200,000 registered homeopathic doctors. Doctors in India are successfully using homeopathy to treat major conditions like cancer. In one review, 21,888 patients with malignant tumours were treated only with homeopathy-they had neither chemotherapy nor radiotherapy-between 1990 and 2005. Clinical reports reveal that the tumours completely regressed in 19 per cent of cases, and stabilized or improved in a further 21 per cent of patients. Those whose tumours had stabilized were followed for between two and 10 years afterwards to monitor the improvement (Banerji, 2008).
Is homeopathy witchcraft?
Yet a Doctor at a British Medical Association conference in 2010, deemed homeopathy as ‘witchcraft’ [Edit 11th August 2020 – I cited a quotation from a BMA blog post called ‘no offence intended which has since been removed from their website] and said that taxpayers should not foot the bill for remedies with no scientific basis to support them. Dr Tom Dolphin, deputy chairman of the BMA’s junior doctors committee in England told the conference: “Homeopathy is witchcraft. It is a disgrace that nestling between the National Hospital for Neurology and Great Ormond Street there is a National Hospital for Homeopathy which is paid for by the NHS”. That same hospital has since stopped providing NHS-funded homeopathic remedies.
NHS England have put homeopathy on a list of items which should not be routinely prescribed in primary care. They say “Due to the volume of evidence submitted a further review of the evidence was commissioned from the Specialist Pharmacy Service (SPS) by NHS England. The SPS review found that there was no clear or robust evidence base to support the use of homeopathy in the NHS.”
The Good Thinking Society go so far to say that homeopathy is a waste of hope, money and time and have campaigned for years to stop the NHS funding homeopathy. In 2017, NHS England recommended that GPs and other prescribers should stop providing it and in August 2018, the Good Thinking Society succeeded in their campaign with homeopathy no longer available on the NHS.
Is homeopathy just a placebo?
The BBC reported that Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, described homeopathy as “at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds”.
A 2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy said that homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos and that the principles on which homeopathy is based are “scientifically implausible”.
Cancer Research say that homeopathy is one of the most common complementary therapies used by people with cancer. They say people report that they feel better with homeopathy but there is no evidence to show that it helps with any health condition. It is thought that it may have a placebo effect.
So poor use of taxpayer’s money, lack of scientific evidence and the placebo effect seem to be the main causes of concern. But what about people who claim homeopathy does, in fact, improve health?
Homeopathy and quinsy
GPs who have prescribed homeopathy acknowledge that their medicines’ mode of action is difficult to explain scientifically, but they cannot deny the often startling evidence of their own eyes.
Andrew Sikorski, a GP in a group practice in East Sussex, tells of an emergency patient with an advanced case of quinsy whose throat was almost completely blocked by a large abscess, and could barely swallow his own saliva. He was very ill, with a high temperature and rapid pulse despite taking a week of oral antibiotics.
Dr Sikorski prepared the correct emergency treatment – intravenous antibiotics and lancing of the abscess – but first he administered the homeopathic remedy Belladonna before going off to prepare the intravenous drip.
When he returned a few minutes later the patient was sipping water and talking freely. Both his pulse and temperature had reverted to near-normal and, on examination, there was no abscess whatever—just a red flush in the area of the right tonsil where the abscess had been.
Dr Sikorski said “That extraordinarily rapid and complete response was well-nigh miraculous: no conventional treatment could have achieved anything like it.”
78% of patients improving with homeopathy
Tom Robinson, a Dorset GP uses homeopathy for one in 10 patients for situations where conventional medicine has nothing to offer. 78 per cent of his patients noted an improvement following treatment and only 3 per cent of his patients found their condition worsened following treatment—a figure far lower than the percentage of patients who get worse with conventional drugs.
Nobel Prize winner defends homeopathy
Dr Luc Montagnier – who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work with AIDS – was quoted in Science magazine defending homeopathy. He said: “What I can say now is that the high dilutions (used in homeopathy) are right. High dilutions of something are not nothing. They are water structures which mimic the original molecules”. His research has verified that electromagnetic signals of the original substance remain in the water and this has dramatic biological effects. Since this declaration, Montagnier has been slammed by critics, but then, many pioneers are. As Drs Marshall and Warren illustrate:
Dr Barry Marshall and Dr Robin Warren put forward a theory in 1982 that bacterial infection was an underlying cause of stomach ulcers. Scientists said it was impossible for bacteria to survive, let alone thrive, in the acidic environment. However years later it was finally shown that Helicobacter pylori infection is indeed the most common cause of stomach ulcers. 23 years after putting forward their theory they were awarded the Nobel prize for Physiology and praised for their “tenacity, and willingness to challenge prevailing dogmas”.
How things change…
Let’s not forget that medical science works the other way around too; practices that we once thought were acceptable or safe, turned out not to be:
During the early 1900s doctors were used as smoking advocates and “scientific research” suggested the “benefits” of smoking. Now it is well known that smoking can cause cancer, heart problems and other ill health.
In the 1950s, thalidomide was prescribed as a safe remedy for morning sickness in pregnant women. More than 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with deformities as a result of their mother’s taking thalidomide.
More recently, Hormone therapy for postmenopausal women has been prescribed with the intention of improving cardiovascular outcomes. However, this research states that “The risk-benefit profile found in this trial is not consistent with the requirements for a viable intervention for primary prevention of chronic diseases, and the results indicate that this regimen should not be initiated or continued for primary prevention of CHD.” [Congenital Heart Disease]
[Edited 23rd Sept 2021: Image originally found on Research into the impact of Tobacco Advertising website- homepage here. The specific page has since been removed.]
Back to the main reasons for homeopathy not being favoured in the medical world – lack of scientific evidence, wasting taxpayers money and the placebo effect.
Homeopathy – where’s the scientific evidence?
While scientific evidence is how we currently measure the efficacy of a medical treatment, let’s open our minds and consider for a moment the possibility that just because we can’t see or measure something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Perhaps we just haven’t found the right tools yet! In fact, this article shows that experts are claiming there is no scientific evidence for the use of statins [Edited 23rd Sept 2021 – the url I linked to (pulsetoday.co.uk/clinical/clinical-specialties/cardiovascular/no-scientific-evidence-for-the-use-of-statins-experts-claim/20033326.article) has since been removed from the web, but a screenshot of the article is below), and that there is no evidence from blinded, placebo-controlled randomised trials to show the efficacy of stents for stable angina.
Is homeopathy a waste of taxpayer’s money?
Under the freedom of information act, The Independent discovered that the NHS has spent more than £1.75mil on homeopathy over a decade. [The Good Thinking Society believe it to be closer to £5mil]. Whichever figure you look at, when you consider the annual budget for the NHS is just over £120 BILLION, the amount spent on homeopathy was less than 0.5%.
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH BUDGET [source]
Nothing better than a placebo
While the chief executive of NHS England and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee say homeopathy is a placebo, The Royal College of GPs says there is a place for placebos in medicine. In a poll, 97% of GPs admitted that they had recommended a sugar pill or a treatment with no established efficacy for the ailment their patient came in with.[more information]
In a fascinating study, it was discovered that placebos aren’t just limited to pills and prescriptions. Back in 2002, it was reported that patients with osteoarthritis of the knee who underwent placebo arthroscopic surgery were just as likely to report pain relief as those who received the real procedure! The patients who had the ‘placebo surgery’ [ or ‘sham surgery’ as it’s better known] had an incision as if surgery was taking place, but nothing further was actually done, then the incision was closed. Those who had the actual procedures did no better than those who had the placebo surgery.
Let’s dig deeper into the placebo effect for a moment. Think about your most acute or chronic health condition – the thing you’re suffering from that has most impact on your life. It doesn’t matter whether it’s pain in your back, the misery of IBS, your twice-weekly migraines or something else; you know for sure what you’re most problematic condition is.
Now imagine you were to receive a treatment which improved this symptom or condition you’re currently dealing with. You wake up tomorrow and the suffering has gone. You’re back to normal and you can do all the things you want to. Do you truly care whether it was caused by a placebo or something that can be scientifically measured? You’re just overjoyed you are free from suffering, right? So if the aim of both conventional medicine and complementary medicine caregivers is that the patient feels better and lives a more healthy life, maybe the placebo effect shouldn’t be scoffed at so much.
If you were hoping for a conclusion, you’re about to be disappointed. The conclusion is that there is no conclusion! The ‘conclusion’ illustrates the perfect example of why the Health and Wellness Grid was set up. It’s an invitation to you to research everything you’re told, to ask probing questions, to consider new ways of thinking and make the right choices for you and your family. All of the research I read about homeopathy was compelling and convincing – regardless of whether it was ‘for’ or ‘against’. And that’s my point. Confirmation bias can prevent us looking at situations objectively, can influence the decisions we make and lead to choices that might not be best for us. So let’s open our minds, ask deep questions and research all sides of the argument before reaching the conclusion that is right for us as individuals.