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Homeopathy medical fact or science fiction?

Thursday 10th April 

Professor David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London and author of the award-winning blog, DC’s Improbable Science 

Homeopathy is nothing but a crude fraud: the barmiest of all forms of alternative medicine. Homeopaths are quick to reference positive clinical trials, which they say prove that homeopathy works, that there’s something in it, that it’s not just a placebo… but they’re misrepresenting the evidence, cherry-picking the positive trials and ignoring the negative ones.

The truth is there’s nothing in the tablets: nothing except sugar. Anyone who believes in Avogadro’s number (a key component in the study of chemistry, which tells you how many molecules there are in a substance) has to realise that.

As for the placebo effect argument, that in itself isn’t as effective as many would have you believe. Yes, it can make you feel a bit better and it does no harm, but neither will it prolong your life, and often the placebo effect is too small for a patient to notice it. In many instances, the “effect” is just natural variability – the “get better anyway” effect. If you’re sick enough to seek treatment you tend to be at your worst, which almost always means in the next couple of days you’ll get better regardless. To take a pill is purely cosmetic.

When used in place of proper treatment, homeopathy is downright dangerous and, in Australia, homeopath Thomas Sam and wife Manju were jailed for the manslaughter of their daughter for this very reason. What worries me is people for whom conventional medicine has failed, which of course it does at times. After all, we only have 100 years of research so it’s not surprising medicine can’t cure all ails. Take cancer sufferers: in desperation these people will turn to anything and that’s when the homeopaths start circling, when there’s money to be made.

More and more people are realising it’s rubbish. When I started my blog in 2006, looking into dubious and improbable science, there were five university degrees in homeopathy. They’ve all shut down. Homeopathy has recently been condemned by the Advertising Standards Agency for making false claims, and they’re no longer allowed to mention any diseases in their advertisements. The government’s chief medical officer has said it’s rubbish. The battle is almost won. The message is getting through. No one in their right mind believes in it.

Dr Tim Robinson, accredited specialist in homeopathy and a GP with a practice in Dorset

No one ever died of homeopathy. There are no side-effects, no risk of dependence and no adverse interactions with conventional medicine. Homeopathy is a safe and effective treatment that I’ve been using as part of my general practice for 20 years. Sceptics will say my evidence is anecdotal, or I was treating self-limiting conditions, or claim it’s simply my caring manner that brought about relief, but I’ve seen homeopathy work on so many varied occasions, over such a long time. If I hadn’t had those positive outcomes, I’d have abandoned it years ago.

If a patient is seriously ill then, of course, I don’t shun conventional medicine. I’m a 21st-century physician. I know that a bacterial infection that is life-threatening needs an antibiotic; that’s according to my medical training and common sense. But in less serious, perhaps recurring, situations, or at times when conventional medicine can “do no more”, then I suggest my patient try a homeopathic solution.

Conventional medicine is disease-focused. It’s accustomed to suppression of symptoms. Just look at the names of our most commonly prescribed drugs – anti-inflammatories, anti-depressants and antibiotics. By contrast, homeopathy is a patient-focused approach in which the whole person and their circumstances are taken into account. Homeopathy gets to the heart of the problem and works by stimulating the body’s own self-healing processes, rather than purely suppressing the symptoms. When integrated with conventional treatment, homeopathy is associated with better clinical outcomes for similar or lower costs. Many claim it’s the placebo effect in action. If homeopathy were merely a placebo, would it work so effectively on babies? Vets use it successfully to treat animals, too. Can a placebo affect them?

Homeopathy does indeed work, as seen in observational studies – around 70 per cent of patients offered homeopathy noticed an improved health state from homeopathic treatment. And 50 per cent reported a major improvement.

What about the 164 randomised placebo-controlled trials – the critics’ gold standard in research and evidence-based medicine – that have taken place in the last 60 years? The response to homeopathic medicine versus a placebo has been 87 per cent positive.

The irrefutable fact is there is clearly something in it. It can work. It does work. We rest our case. Let’s move on.

What is homeopathy?

Homeopathy is a form of holistic medicine which is used by more than 200 million people worldwide. It is based on the principle that like cures like. In other words, a substance taken in small amounts will cure the symptoms that it would cause if taken in large quantities.
This principle dates back to Hippocrates (460-377BC), who said: “By similar things a disease is produced and through the application of the like is cured.”

For further information, view our health cash plans.

Source: This article first appeared in benhealth, issue 26 (spring 2014).

 

 

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