A short report about a Scottish legal case is worth a mention, I think.
Honor Watt, 73 had sued Lothian Health Board after the authority stopped in June 2013 to provide homeopathic treatments to patients. Ms Watt, an arthritis sufferer, had previously received homeopathic medicine for this condition. There is, of course, no good evidence that homeopathic remedies are better than placebos for this (or any other) disease.
Ms Watt’s lawyers decided to challenge the board’s decision in the Court of Session claiming the health board acted illegally. There is reason to believe that Ms Watt was assisted by a professional organisation of homeopathy ( the judgement mentions that the Board’s submission stated that ‘the real force behind the petition was a charity, not the petitioner’).
In any case, Watt’s legal team claimed the Equality Act 2010 placed an obligation on the health board to ask their patients for their views on whether homeopathy should be continued to be funded. The legislation states that public sector organisations have an obligation to consider their decisions on the terms of what is called a public sector equality duty.
The case went to court and the judge, Lord Uist, recently ruled that the health board had acted legally. He therefore refused to overturn the board’s original decision. In a written judgement issued on Friday, Lord Uist confirmed that the health board acted correctly: “It is clear to me from an examination of the relevant documents that the board was from the outset consciously focusing on its PSED.”
The judgement explains that Ms Watt was first referred to the homeopathic service in 2003 when she was suffering from anxiety. Later, she was given a homeopathic medicine for her arthritis after telling her doctor that conventional medicine wasn’t controlling her problems with this condition. In January 2014, she had a final appointment with the homeopathic service and told that she was no longer entitled to homeopathic treatment. However, the judgement states that Ms Watt still receives a prescription of homeopathic medicine.
Lothian Health Board decided to end homeopathic provision after concluding the money would be better spent on conventional treatments. The board made the decision after holding a consultation exercise and concluding that only few NHS users would be affected by their decision. In a report, the reasons for why the board should stop spending money on homeopthy were set out.
Judge Uist confirmed that this report “stated that the withdrawal of funding for homeopathic services would have a limited negative impact on patients and staff, the majority of patients were from more affluent areas and it was felt that they could perhaps afford to self fund alternative provision.”
Ms Watt’s lawyers claimed that the board didn’t do enough to seek the views of those who used the service. They argued that the board broke the terms of the 2010 Equality Act. After examining the evidence, Judge Uist concluded, however, that the health board had done everything in its power and had made the correct decision: “I am satisfied that reduction of the board’s decision of June 26 2013 would result only in a waste of time and public funds as it would inevitably result in exactly the same decision being taken by the board.”
From my perspective, this is an important decision. As a physician, I naturally dislike not giving patients what they want. However, I dislike it even more when there is not enough money for other patients to have essential treatments. Thus it is obvious that harsh decisions have to be made in order to spend the available funds as rationally as possible – and that, of course, means that treatments for which there is no good evidence must not be funded from public money. Homeopathy clearly falls in that category.
As I am not a lawyer, I see this case with the eyes of a medic and researcher. For me, it is about the age-old question: should patients get the treatment they want or the treatment they need? For me, health care is not a supermarket where people can their trolleys with everything they happen to fancy. For me, health care is not about satisfying the ‘wants’; it is about coping with the needs of people. For me, this is a question of medical ethics. For me, the Scottish judgement is spot on.
I just came across an announcement which could be important. Here are what I consider the important passages:
The Federal Trade Commission will host a public workshop on Monday, September 21, 2015 in Washington, DC, to examine advertising for over-the-counter (OTC) homeopathic products…
Because of rapid growth in the marketing and consumer use of homeopathic products, the FTC is hosting a workshop to evaluate the advertising for such products. The workshop will bring together a variety of stakeholders, including medical professionals, industry representatives, consumer advocates, and government regulators.
The FTC invites the public to submit research, recommendations for topics of discussion, and requests to participate as panelists. The workshop will cover topics including:
- A look at changes in the homeopathic market, its advertising, and what consumers know;
- The science behind homeopathy and its effectiveness;
- The effects of recent class actions against homeopathic product companies;
- The application of Section 5 of the FTC Act to advertising claims for homeopathic products; and
- Public policy concerns about the current regulation of homeopathic products.
Public comments can be submitted electronically. Paper submissions should be sent to: Federal Trade Commission, Office of the Secretary, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Suite CC-5610 (Annex B), Washington, DC 20580, or delivered to: Federal Trade Commission, Office of the Secretary, Constitution Center, 400 7th Street, SW, 5th Floor, Suite 5610 (Annex B), Washington, DC 20024. Paper submissions should reference the Homeopathic Medicine & Advertising Workshop both in the text and on the envelope. The deadline for submitting public comments is Friday, November 20, 2015.
The FTC also has set up an email box for anyone interested in being a panelist at the event or suggesting additional topics for discussion. It is firstname.lastname@example.org (link sends e-mail), and will be open until August 1, 2015.
The workshop is free and open to the public. It will be held at the Constitution Center, 400 7th St., SW, Washington, DC 20024. The Commission will publish a detailed agenda at a later date…
The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad…
In my view, this is a long overdue initiative. Consumers are constantly and outrageously misled by the advertising of homeopathic products. This has the potential to impact negatively on public health.
It would not surprise me, if homeopathy advocates were to try to swamp this event with their promotion of homeopathy. Therefore, I thought it was important to post the announcement on my blog, in the hope that as many scientifically minded people as possible might file their evidence and objections.
Conventional cough syrups do not have the best of reputations – but the repute of homeopathic cough syrups is certainly not encouraging. So what should one do with such a preparation? Forget about it? No, one conducts a clinical trial, of course! Not just any old trial but one where science, ethics and common sense are absent. Here are the essentials of a truly innovative study that, I think, has all of these remarkable qualities:
The present prospective observational study investigated children affected by wet acute cough caused by non-complicated URTIs, comparing those who received the homeopathic syrup versus those treated with the homeopathic syrup plus antibiotic. The aims were: 1) to assess whether the addition of antibiotics to a symptomatic treatment had a role in reducing the severity and duration of acute cough in a pediatric population, as well as in improving cough resolution; 2) to verify the safety of the two treatments. Eighty-five children were enrolled in an open study: 46 children received homeopathic syrup alone for 10 days and 39 children received homeopathic syrup for 10 days plus oral antibiotic treatment (amoxicillin/clavulanate, clarithromycin, and erythromycin) for 7 days. To assess cough severity we used a subjective verbal category-descriptive (VCD) scale. Cough VCD score was significantly (P < 0.001) reduced in both groups starting from the second day of treatment (−0.52 ± 0.66 in the homeopathic syrup group and −0.56 ± 0.55 in children receiving homeopathic syrup plus oral antibiotic treatment). No significant differences in cough severity or resolution were found between the two groups of children in any of the 28 days of the study. After the first week (day 8) cough was completely resolved in more than one-half of patients in both groups. Two children (4.3 %) reported adverse effects in the group treated with the homeopathic syrup alone, versus 9 children (23.1 %) in the group treated with the homeopathic syrup plus antibiotics (P = 0.020).
Our data confirm that the homeopathic treatment in question has potential benefits for cough in children as well, and highlight the strong safety profile of this treatment. Additional antibiotic prescription was not associated with a greater cough reduction, and presented more adverse events than the homeopathic syrup alone.
Let us be clear about what has happened here. I think, the events can be summarised as follows:
- the researchers come across a homeopathic syrup (anyone who understands respiratory problems and/or therapeutics would be more than a little suspicious of this product, but this team is exceptional),
- they decide to do a trial with it (a decision which would make some ethicists already quite nervous, but the ethics committee is exceptional too),
- the question raises, what should the researchers give to the control group?
- someone has the idea, why not compare our dodgy syrup against something that is equally dodgy, perhaps even a bit unsafe?
- the researchers are impressed and ask: but what precisely could we use?
- let’s take antibiotics; they are often used for acute coughs, but the best evidence fails to show that they are helpful and they have, of course, risks,
- another member of the team adds: let’s use children, they and their mothers are unlikely to understand what we are up to,
- the team is in agreement,
- Boiron, the world’s largest producer of homeopathic products, accepts to finance the study,
- a protocol is written,
- ethics approval is obtained,
- the trial is conducted and even published by a journal with the help of peer-reviewers who are less than critical.
And the results of the trial? Contrary to the authors’ conclusion copied above, they show that two bogus treatments are worse that one.
BOB’S YOUR UNCLE!
EVERYONE SEEMS HAPPY: THE RESEARCHERS CAN ADD AN ARTICLE TO THEIR PUBLICATION LIST, BOIRON HAS MORE ‘EVIDENCE’ IN FAVOUR OF HOMEOPATHY, AND THE ETHICS COMMITTEE SLEEP JUST AS SOUNDLY AS THE PEER-REVIEWERS.
This article is hilarious, I think. It was written by Heike Bishop, a homeopath who works in Australia. Here she tries to advise colleagues how best to defend homeopathy and how to deal effectively with the increasingly outspoken criticism of homeopathy. Below is the decisive passage from her article; I have not changed or omitted a word, not even her grammatical or other mistakes [only the numbers in brackets were inserted by me; they refer to my comments added below]:
Getting up in the morning and hearing that all the television and radio station report that it is dangerous for people to see their homoeopath, is utterly heart breaking. Even more so because I grew up in East Germany where the government suppressed free speech and anything that was off the beaten path . So what can we do in times like these?
First of all, watch out for Government inquiries. History has shown that they are usually not favourable towards homoeopathy  unless you live in Switzerland . It is vitally important in times like these to put differences aside amongst our professional peers. Every association should be mobilised to take an active and ONGOING role to educate and advertise the benefits of homoeopathy . If things have gone too far already, talk about freedom of choice . Write articles and join blogs talking about what you can do specifically for certain conditions . Encourage your patients to tell their success stories in blogs and other social media forums . It is in most cases utterly useless to engage in any conversation  online with trolls .
Try to develop a calloused skin when it comes to criticism. Your patients don’t want to hear how difficult it is to be a homeopath , they want you to be in control and to be reassured that their treatment continues . When someone asks you to comment on an attack on homoeopathy, put your best smile on and state how threatened the pharmaceutical industry must be to resort to such tactics .
Staphysagria is indeed a good remedy. Hahnemann also knew its benefits and even alternated it with Arsenicum the day his first wife died and he got a letter that the hospital built in his name allowed patients to choose their treatment between allopathy and homoeopathy . That was the only time he took two remedies on the same day! 
Find out what you can about your country’s own internet trolls . However, don’t underestimate their effectiveness in swaying popular opinion . There is no denying that their methods are very effective . It doesn’t matter how ludicrous their comments are, don’t go into direct explanation . Learn from the enemy  and repeat a positive message over and over again so it can’t be contorted .
Our colleges should support post-graduate studies featuring marketing and media courses . I once met a Homoeopath from the UK and she pointed out that part of the training in the UK is for students to hold homoeopathic first aid courses to promote homoeopathy . Everyone is different – some of us are happy to stand in front of an audience others choose the pen as their sword . The main thing is to do something to save the image of our healing art .
- Is she implying that facing criticism of homeopathy is akin to living in a totalitarian state? Or that criticism is a violation of free speech?
- I wonder why this is so – nothing to do with the evidence, I presume?
- Does she refer to the famous ‘Swiss Government report’ which was not by the Swiss Government at all?
- ‘Advertise and educate’ seems to be homeopathic speak for ‘MISLEAD’
- Good idea! Freedom of choice is a perfect argument (in this case, my choice would be to have a bottle of champagne at around 6 pm every day – on the NHS, of course).
- Certain conditions??? And I thought homeopaths do not treat conditions, only whole people.
- And forbid them to disclose stories where things did not work out quite so well?
- Very wise! Conversations are fraught with the danger of being found wrong.
- Critics are not critics but ‘trolls’ – makes sense.
- I would have thought that practising as a homeopath is not difficult at all – in most countries, they don’t even check whether you can spell the name correctly.
- Is it not rather the homeopath who wants the treatment to continue – after all, it is her livelihood?
- Ah yes, BIG PHARMA, the last resort of any quack!
- Did she not just praise patient choice as an important virtue?
- Hahnemann was famously cantankerous and argumentative all his life; does that mean that his remedies did not work?
- Homeopaths might need that for your ad hominem attacks.
- Never underestimate the power of truth!!!
- This might show that it is you and not the ‘trolls’ who are ludicrous.
- Particularly as there are no direct explanations for homeopathy.
- First the critics were ‘trolls’, now they have been upgraded to ‘enemy’! Is it really a war?
- You need to repeat it at least regularly so that eventually you believe it yourself.
- Are marketing and media a substitute for evidence?
- Really, first aid? Do homeopaths know what this is? Obviously not!
- But real clinicians, homeopaths call them allopaths, are quite happy simply with effective treatments that help patients to improve.
- And I thought the main thing was to treat patients with the most effective therapies available.
ENOUGH JOKING AND SARCASM!
There is, of course, a very serious message in all of this: when under pressure, homeopaths seem to think of all sorts of things in their (and homeopathy’s) defense – some more rational than others – but the ideas that criticism might be a good way to generate progress, and that a factual debate about the known facts might improve healthcare, do not seem to be amongst them.
Homeopathy is very popular in India – at least this is what we are being told over and over again. The notion goes as far as some sources assuming that homeopathy is quintessential Indian (see below). One Website, informs us that homeopathy is the third most popular method of treatment in India, after Allopathy and Ayurveda. It is estimated that there are about quarter million homeopaths in India. Nearly 10,000 new ones add to this number every year. The legal status of homeopathy in India is very much at par with the conventional medicine.
Another website currently advises the Indian population as well as heath tourists from abroad about homeopathy in the following terms:
Homeopathic medicines have various benefits. Some of them are as follows:
- Such medicines can be given to infants, children, pregnant or nursing woman
- If by chance, wrong medication is prescribed, it is not going to have any ill-effect
- These medicines can be taken along with other medications
- Homeopathic treatment can be used by anyone
- The medicines work on the eradication of the symptoms so that illness never comes back
- These medicines can be stored for a longer span of time and are inexpensive as well
- Homeopathy has a holistic approach and deals with mind, body and emotions
- These medicines are non-invasive and extremely effective
- These medicines can be administered easily
- Homeopathy useful in a number of health problems
Homeopathic Remedies, for Diseases and Conditions
- Acute fevers
- Sore throats
- Mild depression
- Injuries with blunt objects
- Loss of appetite
But is it really true that so many Indian consumers swear by homeopathy, or is that just one of the many myths from the realm of quackery that stubbornly refuse to disappear ?
A survey recently conducted by Indian National Sample Survey Office might provide some answers. It revealed that 90 per cent of the Indian population rely on conventional medicine. Merely 6% trusted what the investigators chose to call ‘Indian systems of medicine’, e. g. ayurveda, unani and siddha, homeopathy and yoga and naturopathy.
Odd? Not really! There are several plausible explanations for this apparent contradiction:
- The popularity of homeopathy in India could be a myth promoted by apologists.
- The figures could be correct, and many Indian patients could use homeopathy not because they believe in it but because they cannot afford effective treatments.
- The claim of homeopathy’s popularity could refer to the past, while the recent survey clearly relates to the present.
Whatever the true answer might be, I think this little news story is an instructive example for the fact that the ‘argumentum ad populum’ is a fallacy that easily can mislead us.
The notion that the use homeopathy instead of real medicine might save money (heavily promoted by homeopaths and their followers, often to influence health politics) has always struck me as being utterly bizarre: without effectiveness, it is hard to imagine cost-effectiveness. Yet the Smallwood report (in)famously claimed that the NHS would save lots of money, if GPs were to use more homeopathy. At the time, I thought this was such a serious and dangerous error that I decided to do something about it. My objection to the flawed report might have prevented it being taken seriously by anyone with half a brain, but sadly it also cost me my job (the full story can be read here).
Later publications perpetuated the erroneous idea of homeopathy’s cost-effectiveness. For instance, an Italian analysis (published in the journal ‘Homeopathy’) concluded that homeopathic treatment for respiratory diseases (asthma, allergic complaints, Acute Recurrent Respiratory Infections) was associated with a significant reduction in the use and costs of conventional drugs. Costs for homeopathic therapy are significantly lower than those for conventional pharmacological therapy. Again, this paper was so badly flawed that, other than some homeopaths, nobody seemed to have taken the slightest notice of it.
Now a new article has been published on this very subject. The aim of this study was to compare the health care costs for patients using additional homeopathic treatment (homeopathy group) with the costs for those receiving usual care (control group).
Cost data provided by a large German statutory health insurance company were retrospectively analysed from the societal perspective (primary outcome) and from the statutory health insurance perspective. Patients in both groups were matched using a propensity score matching procedure based on socio-demographic variables as well as costs, number of hospital stays and sick leave days in the previous 12 months. Total cumulative costs over 18 months were compared between the groups with an analysis of covariance (adjusted for baseline costs) across diagnoses and for six specific diagnoses (depression, migraine, allergic rhinitis, asthma, atopic dermatitis, and headache).
Data from 44,550 patients (67.3% females) were available for analysis. From the societal perspective, total costs after 18 months were higher in the homeopathy group (adj. mean: EUR 7,207.72 [95% CI 7,001.14-7,414.29]) than in the control group (EUR 5,857.56 [5,650.98-6,064.13]; p<0.0001) with the largest differences between groups for productivity loss (homeopathy EUR 3,698.00 [3,586.48-3,809.53] vs. control EUR 3,092.84 [2,981.31-3,204.37]) and outpatient care costs (homeopathy EUR 1,088.25 [1,073.90-1,102.59] vs. control EUR 867.87 [853.52-882.21]). Group differences decreased over time. For all diagnoses, costs were higher in the homeopathy group than in the control group, although this difference was not always statistically significant.
The authors of this paper (who have a long track record of being pro-homeopathy) concluded that, compared with usual care, additional homeopathic treatment was associated with significantly higher costs. These analyses did not confirm previously observed cost savings resulting from the use of homeopathy in the health care system.
The next time someone does a (no doubt costly) cost-effectiveness analysis of an ineffective treatment, it would be good (and cost-effective) to remember: WITHOUT EFFECTIVENESS, THERE CAN BE NO COST-EFFECTIVENESS.
“So what? We all know that homeopathy is nonsense,” I hear some people argue, “at the same time, it is surely trivial. Let those nutters do what they want; at least it is not harmful!”
If you are amongst the many consumers who think so, please read this announcement that arrived in my inbox today:
The first International Conference:
A Worldwide Choice HP
The NON-TOXIC form of disease prevention
Are you questioning the pressure to vaccinate?
Is there another way to protect your children?
Do you have another choice?
YES YOU DO!
Homeoprophylaxis or Homeopathic Immunization
Learn how to incorporate homeoprophylaxis into your existing practise
Learn how you can get a homeoprophylactic program going for your family
Learn how homeoprophylaxis is a gentle, nontoxic alternative for you to choose
Where: Dallas, Texas, USA
When: October 2-4, 2015
Reserve your place TODAY to hear speakers from around the world.
- Dr Isaac Golden (Australia) – 20 years of HP research
- Neil Miller (USA) – vaccines and infant mortality rates
- Dr Harry van der Zee (the Netherlands) – HP for epidemics
- Dr Tetyana Obukhanuch – how the healthy immune system works
- Ravi Roy& Carola Lage Roy (Germany) – HP in Europe
- Alan Phillips, JD (USA) – legalities of vaccine exemptions
- Ananda More (Canada) – “In Search of Evidence” movie
- And special guest, Dr Andrew Wakefield
I THINK I CAN REST MY CASE.
This post is dedicated to all homeopathic character assassins.
Some ardent homeopathy fans have reminded me that, some 25 years ago, I published (OH, WHAT A SCANDAL!!!) a positive trial of homeopathy; I even found a website that proudly announces this fact. Homeopaths seem jubilant about this discovery (not because they now need to revise their allegations that I never did any trials; or the other, equally popular claim, that I have always been squarely against their trade but) because the implication is that even I have to concede that homeopathic remedies are better than placebo. In their view, this seems to beg the following important and embarrassing questions:
- Why did I change my mind?
- Am I not contradicting myself?
- Who has bribed me?
- Am I in the pocket of Big Pharma?
- Does this ‘skeleton in my closet’ discredit me for all times?
I remember the trial in question quite well. We conducted it during my time in Vienna, and I am proud of several innovative ideas that went into it. Here is the abstract in full:
The aim of this study was to test the effectiveness of a combined homeopathic medication in primary varicosity. A well-defined population of 61 patients was randomized into active medication (Poikiven®) or placebo. Both were given for 24 d. At the start of the trial, after 12 d medication and at the end of the study, objective and subjective parameters were recorded: venous filling time, leg volume, calf circumference, haemorheological measurements and patients’ symptoms such as cramps, itching, leg heaviness, pain during standing and the need to elevate the legs. The results show that venous filling time is changed by 44% towards normal in the actively-treated group. The average leg volume fell significantly more in this group, but calf circumferences did not change significantly and blood rheology was not altered in any relevant way. None of the patients reported side-effects. Subjective complaints were relieved significantly more by Poikiven than by placebo. These results suggest that the oral treatment of primary varicosity using Poikiven is feasible.
So, there we have it: a homeopathic remedy (as tested by me) is clearly better than placebo normalising important objective parameters as well as subjective symptoms of varicose veins. Is that not a contradiction of what I keep saying today, namely that homeopathy is a placebo therapy?
YES AND NO! (But much more NO than YES)
Yes, because that was clearly our result, and I never tried to deny it.
No, because our verum was far from being a homeopathic, highly diluted remedy. It contained Aesculus D1 12,5 ml, Arnica D1 2,5 ml, Carduus marianus D1 5 ml, Hamamelis D1 10 ml, Lachesis D6 5 ml, Lycopodium D4 5 ml, Melilotus officinalis D1 10 ml. Take just the first of these ingredients, Aesculus or horse chestnut. This is a herbal medicine that has been well documented (even via a Cochrane review) to be effective for the symptoms of varicose veins, and it contains Aesculus in the D1 potency. This means that it is diluted merely by a factor of 1:10. So, for all intents and purposes, our verum was herbal by nature, and there is no surprise at all that we found it to be effective.[Here is a little ‘aside’: Aesculus is a proven treatment for varicose veins. Homeopathy must always rely on the ‘like cures like’ principle. Therefore, if Aesculus had been used in the homeopathic way, would it not, according to homeopathic dogma, had to worsen the symptoms of our patients rather than alleviating them?]
All of this would be trivial to the extreme, if it did not touch upon an important and confusing point which is often used as an ‘escape route’ by homeopaths when they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Some trials of homeopathy are positive because they use medications which are homeopathic only by name. This regularly creates considerable confusion. In the recent BMJ debate I tried to address this issue head on by stating at the outset: ” Nobody questions, of course, that some substances used in homeopathy, such as arsenic or strychnine, can be pharmacologically active, but homeopathic medicines are typically far too dilute to have any effect.”
And that’s the point: homeopathic remedies beyond a C12 potency contain nothing, less dilute ones contain little to very little, and D1 potencies are hardy diluted at all and thus contain substantial amounts of active ingredients. Such low potencies are rarely used by homeopaths and should be called PSEUDO-HOMEOPATHIC, in my view. Homeopaths tend to use this confusing complexity to wriggle out of difficult arguments, and often they rely on systematic reviews of homeopathic trials which can generate somewhat confusing overall findings because of such PSEUDO-HOMEOPATHIC remedies.
To make it perfectly clear: the typical homeopathic remedy is far too dilute to have any effect. When scientists or the public at large speak of homeopathic remedies, we don’t mean extracts of Aesculus or potent poisons like Arsenic D1 (has anyone heard of someone claiming to have killed rats with homeopathy?); we refer to the vast majority of remedies which are highly dilute and contain no or very few active molecules – even when we do not explain this somewhat complicated and rather tedious circumstance each and every time. I therefore declare once and for all that, unless I indicate otherwise, I do NOT mean potencies below C6 when I speak of a ‘homeopathic remedy’ (sorry homeopathy fans, perhaps I should have done this when I started this blog).
What if our Vienna study all those years ago had tested not the pseudo-homeopathic ‘Poikiven’ but a highly dilute, real homeopathic remedy and had still come up with a positive finding? Would that make me inconsistent, dishonest, untrustworthy or corrupt? Certainly not!
I have always urged people to not go by the results of single trials. There are numerous reasons why a single study can produce a misleading result. We should therefore, wherever possible, rely on systematic reviews that critically evaluate the totality of the evidence (I would always mistrust even my own trial data, if it contradicted the totality of the reliable evidence) – and such analyses clearly fail to show that homeopathy is more than a placebo.
And even, if none of this had happened, and I had just changed my mind about homeopathy because
- the evidence changed,
- I had become wiser,
- I had learnt how to think like a scientist,
- I had managed to see behind the smokescreen many homeopaths put up to hide the truth?
Would that discredit me? I don’t think so! As someone once said, being able to change one’s mind is a sign of intelligence.
I am sure that the weird world of homeopathic character assassination will soon find something else to discredit me – but for now…
I REST MY CASE.
The BMJ is my favourite medical journal by far; I think it is full of good science as well as entertaining to read, and I look forward to finding it in my letter box every Friday. It is thus hard for me to criticise the BMJ, and this is not made easier by the fact that I am the author of one of the two pieces in question. However, the current ‘HEAD TO HEAD’ entitled ‘SHOULD DOCTORS RECOMMEND HOMEOPATHY’ does, in my view, not mark the finest hour of this journal. Let me explain why.
The first question that arises is whether homeopathy is a good subject for such a debate. As several commentators have pointed out, it is not – the debate has long been closed; to serious scientists and many doctors, homeopathy tends to be a subject that is nothing more than an odd, obsolete triviality that does not even deserve a mention in the BMJ or any other serious publication. In a way, this notion has almost been proven wrong by the high level of interest the subject quickly generated. So, I will not dwell on this point any longer.
The second issue that arises just from nothing more than merely reading the title of the debate is that the question posed is imprecise. ‘Homeopathy’ is too broad a term for a focussed discussion; it includes amongst other phenomena empathetic encounters, remedies with material doses of highly active ingredients (e.g. Arsenic D1) and remedies that contain absolutely nothing at all (any ‘potency’ beyond C12). In my piece, I tried to make it clear that I speak mostly about ultra-molecular dilutions. This is less obvious in Peter Fisher’s article, and there is doubtlessly a lot of confusion in the debate as well as the comments that follow.
The two articles had to be written without either author knowing the text of the other. Consequently the issues raised by one author were not necessarily addressed by the other. This is somewhat frustrating, as it fails to clarify issues that could easily have been dealt with. In a previous post, I have already explained that the peer-review process of the two articles was seriously flawed. It failed to correct the many misleading statements in Fisher’s piece, as Alan Henness has pointed out in his response both in the BMJ and on this blog. In fact, reading Fisher’s article, I fail to find a single passage that is not factually wrong or highly misleading (the accompanying podcast is even worse, in my view). To me it is obvious that the debate about homeopathy cannot advance, if one side continues to behave in this fashion.
Homeopaths are very adept at recruiting ‘grass roots’ for public relation activities. We know this from various previous experiences. It was therefore predictable that this would swiftly get organised also in this instance. I happen to know from more than one source that there was a highly active campaign by homeopaths trying to persuade their supporters to post responses on the BMJ site and to vote on the BMJ straw poll (scientists, by contrast, know that such polls are silly gadgets and tend to view homeopathy as a triviality that is not worth the effort). In this way, they try to generate the impression that the majority of the public stands firmly behind homeopathy and want doctors to recommend it. It does not need too much to realise that popularity is not a measure of efficacy. Homeopaths, however, tend to relish logical fallacies and therefore will rejoice at such nonsense and celebrate it as their very own victory.
So, was this ‘HEAD TO HEAD’ a mistake? Should I have refused to participate? With hindsight, perhaps. My main reason for accepting was that, had I declined the offer, someone else would have written the piece (there are plenty of excellent scientists who could do an excellent job at this). As sure as hell, that person would subsequently gotten attacked for not ever having researched and/or practiced homeopathy (in the podcast, Fisher even tried to undermine my authority by pointing out that 1) I have not worked as a clinician for decades and 2) I have no NHS contract). I think I may be one of the few critics of homeopathy who cannot possibly be accused of not knowing enough about homeopathy to discuss the subject.
My hope is that, because the BMJ is such an excellent journal, the two articles will survive the current hoo-hah and some people will read them carefully, look up and study the references, analyse all this critically and weigh the arguments responsibly. Then they must be able to discern the fiction from the facts. And in this case, perhaps it was worth it after all.
The ‘Homeopathy Action Trust’ (HAT) is a charity that claims to encourage and support public understanding of homeopathy. They believe that homeopathy is invaluable to many people and plays an important role in maintaining their health and wellbeing. The HAT advocates that patients have a right to choose homeopathic treatments and access to it on the NHS or privately. Many of HAT’s projects are about promoting to use of homeopathy in Africa, for instance, where they advocate homeopathy as a treatment for all sorts of serious diseases.
Recently HAT embarked on another project: a campaign against the current Wiki-page on homeopathy which HAT believes to be biased against homeopathy. Thus they issued a ‘position statement’ on their website. Here is a short paragraph from that statement which I find worthy of a comment (the numbers were inserted by me and refer to my comments below; otherwise the text in bold is by HAT):
We acknowledge that the scientific evidence in support of Homeopathy remains inconclusive (1), but it is by no means definitively negative (2) and there is in fact an active and growing field of research worldwide (3). We acknowledge that the mechanism of action of homeopathic remedies is unknown (4) – as it is for some conventional medicines – but this does not preclude their usage in clinical situations (5). We welcome honest and open-minded debate (6) about Homeopathy and fully support the call for high quality (7), appropriately designed research studies (8) into the effectiveness of homeopathy as it is practised by both medical and professional homeopaths (9).
- The evidence is not ‘inconclusive’ but the most reliable evidence fails to convincingly show efficacy (see here, for instance).
- In healthcare, we do not focus on the question whether the evidence for anything is ‘definitely negative’, but we base our decisions on the question whether or not the evidence is positive. In other words, we use those treatments that are backed up with positive evidence and not those where this is in serious doubt.
- The research activity in homeopathy has been in decline for some time; this can easily be verified by searching Medline.
- No, we know that there cannot be a mechanism of action that is in line with the laws of nature.
- If such therapies are used in conventional healthcare, it is because they are (contrary to homeopathy) supported by sufficiently strong clinical evidence.
- So far, this ‘position statement’ is neither honest nor open-minded, in my view.
- More research seems unnecessary, perhaps even unethical, and most research in this area is not of high quality.
- ‘Appropriately designed’ sounds frightfully suspicious to me, because homeopaths tend to see any trial that fails to confirm their bizarre notions as ‘not appropriately designed’.
- ‘Professional homeopath’ is a term designed to mislead the public; lay homeopaths would be more to the point, I think.
The last time I had contact with Dr Fisher was when he fired me from the editorial board of his journal ‘Homeopathy’. He did that by sending me the following letter:
Dear Professor Ernst,
This is to inform you that you have been removed from the Editorial Board of Homeopathy. The reason for this is the statement you published on your blog on Holocaust Memorial Day 2013 in which you smeared homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine with a ‘guilt by association’ argument, associating them with the Nazis.
I should declare a personal interest….[Fisher goes on to tell a story which is personal and which I therefore omit]… I mention this only because it highlights the absurdity of guilt by association arguments.
Peter Fisher Editor-in-Chief, Homeopathy
I did not expect to have any more dealings with him after this rather unpleasant encounter. But, as it turns out, I recently did have a further encounter.
When the BMJ invited me to write a debate article about the question whether homeopathy should continue to be available on the NHS, I accepted (with some reservations, I hasten to add). At the time, I did not know who would do the ‘other side’ of this debate. It turned out to be Peter Fisher, and our two articles have just been published.
As one would expect from a good journal, the articles were both peer reviewed. One of the peer-reviewers of my piece was most scathing of it essentially claiming that it was entirely worthless. Feeling that this was a bit harsh and very impolite, I was keen to see who this reviewer had been; it was none other than Andrew Vickers. This is remarkable because Vickers had not only published several homeopathic papers with Fisher, but also had been in the employment of the ‘Royal London Homeopathic Hospital’ under Fisher. To the best of my knowledge, his conflicts of interested had not been disclosed. I did point that out to the BMJ, but they seemed to think nothing of it.
Anyway, I was pleased to eventually (the whole procedure took many months) see the articles published, but at the same time somewhat irritated by Fisher’s piece. It contained plenty of misleading information that the peer-reviewers obviously had failed to correct. Here is a small sample from Fishers piece:
… recent overviews have had more favourable conclusions, including a health technology assessment commissioned by the Swiss federal government that concluded that homeopathy is “probably” effective for upper respiratory tract infections and allergies.
Readers interested in the clinical evidence can access the CORE-HOM database of clinical research in homeopathy free of charge (www.carstens-stiftung.de/core-hom). It includes 1117 clinical trials of homeopathy, of which about 300 are randomised controlled trials.
In the podcast that accompanies the articles Fisher insists that, on this database, there are well over 300 RCT, and I had to admit that this was new to me. Keen to learn more, I registered with the database and had a look. What I found startled me. True, the database does claim that almost 500 RCTs are available, but just a very superficial scrutiny of these studies reveals that
- some are not truly randomised,
- some are not even clinical trials,
- the list includes dual publications, re-analyses of already published studies as well as aborted trials,
- many have never been peer-reviewed,
- many are not double-blind,
- many are not placebo controlled,
- the majority are of poor methodological quality.
As to the other thing mentioned in the above excerpt from Fisher’s article, the famous ‘health technology assessment commissioned by the Swiss federal government’, I can refer my readers to a blog post by J W Nienhuys which probably says it all, if not, there is plenty more criticism of this report available on the Internet.
My conclusion from all this?
THE QUEEN’S HOMEOPATH USES ARGUMENTS THAT SEEM JUST AS BOGUS AS HOMEOPATHY ITSELF.