MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

homeopathy

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.

Sincerely

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.

Many people seem to believe that homeopathy is harmless. It is a belief that can easily be shown to be wrong, and this blog has repeatedly done just that. Perhaps the best researched issue here is the stance of many homeopaths against vaccination.  But this is by no means all.

There are uncounted books, articles and websites which mislead consumers into believing that they can cure their illnesses with homeopathy. Take the website of ‘STAR HOMEOPATHY’ for instance. This organisation makes fantastic promises:

Star homeopathy, a chain of super specialty homeopathic clinic’s founded by a group of practically high qualified doctors with the vision to provide the best medical treatment in a scientific and most advanced way with the use of latest clinical knowledge and medical diagnostic equipment.

We boast of a combined experience of 200 years in the science of Homeopathy. We have 35 years of personal experience to provide you world-class solutions in health care. Experience the odour of advanced and New-Age Homeopathy–only at Star Homeopathy Clinics. It is no more a slow and long drawn treatment process.

You can rely on us to get world class homeopathic solutions for your problems like : Hair loss, Dandruff , Joint pains, Neck pain, Knee pain, Gastric and duodenal ulcer, Piles, Fissure, Fistula, Asthma, Skin and respiratory allergies , Sinusitis, Acne ,Hyperpigmentation , Psoriasis, Migraine , Headache, Anxiety, Depression , Sexual problems like Erectile dysfunction ,Premature ejaculation, Hormonal imbalance in female, Low sperm count in men…

We at star homeopathy, confidently say that we accurately diagnose the disease condition and treat all chronic diseases very efficiently without harming the patient’s body.

Such statements are bound to inspire confidence to many people who are chronically ill and frustrated with the fact that they need to take drugs for the rest of their lives to stay alive. Patients suffering from diabetes, for instance. They might hope that STAR HOMEOPATHY has a solution for them. And true enough, they do:

How Homoeopathy helps to cure Diabetes?

In homeopathy, diabetes is seen as a reflection of the body’s inability to function optimally. There is an imbalance that results in the body’s incapacity to effectively utilize the insulin that it produces, or to produce sufficient insulin for its needs. While symptoms often disappear after conventional treatment, the vital force does not. Homoeopathy can be used effectively in the treatment of diabetes. Here we mainly concentrate on functioning of the pancreas in efficient insulin production. The metabolic condition of a patient suffering from diabetes requires both therapeutic and nutritional measures to correct the illness. Homeopathy can regulate sugar metabolism while helping to resolve the metabolic disturbances that lead to diabetes. Furthermore, homeopathy helps stimulate the body’s self-healing powers in order to prevent complications such as open leg sores and other dysfunctions of the blood vessel, loss of vision, kidney failure. Homeopathic treatment does not target one illness, an organ, a body part or a symptom. Remedies are prescribed based on an assembly of presenting symptoms, their stresses in life.

Commonly indicated Homoeopathic remedies:

Syzygium: A most useful remedy in diabetes mellitus. No other remedy causes in so marked degree the diminution and disappearance of sugar in the urine. Prickly heat in upper part of the body; small red pimples itch violently. Great thirst, weakness, emaciation. Very large amounts of urine.. Diabetic ulceration.. Syzygium Jambolanum has marked action on diabetes mellitus as it causes marked diminution of sugar in urine. Great thirst with weakness, emaciation inspite of proper nutritious diet. Profuse urination of high specific gravity. Small red pimples with much itching. Syzygium Jambolanum also helps in treating old ulcers of skin associated with diabetes mellitus.

Uranium nitricum: Uranium Nitricum is a chief diuretic remedy. There is copious urination with incontinence of urine. It is indicated in glycosuria with increased urination, emaciation and tympanites. Uranium Nitiricum also helps in enuresis, the patient is unable to retain urine without pain. Burning in urethra, with very acid urine. There is a tendency to great emaciation, debility and general dropsy. Causes glycosuria and increased urine. Is known to produce nephritis, diabetes, degeneration of the liver, high blood pressure and dropsy. Its therapeutic keynote is Great emaciation, debility and tendency to ascites and general dropsy. Backache and delayed menses. Dry mucous membranes and skin.

Lycopodium: Diabetes. Anger during disease. Lost of self confidence. The right side conditions works well and thus improve the liver and kidney functioning as conditions Neuropathy. There is constipation due to inactivity of the rectum. Impotence. Intense desire for sweets.

So, if you think that homeopathy is harmless, think again!

Following this advice, could mean the death of many diabetics.

No treatment for which hugely exaggerated claims abound can ever be safe.

I have always wondered how pharmacists might justify using or recommending or selling homeopathic remedies. So far, I have not come across a pharmacist who would want to stick his/her neck out for homeopathy. Many pharmacists earn money by selling homeopathic preparations – but most seem to be embarrassed by this fact and don’t want to defend it.

Therefore, I was pleased when I found this interview with the pharmacist Christophe Merville. He got introduced to homeopathy as a 11 year old boy suffering from hay fewer; after using homeopathy, “the crises became less severe and less frequent”. Later, he studied to become a pharmacist in France and, in 1990, he joined Boiron, the world’s largest manufacturer of homeopathic remedies. The following is an extensive excerpt (I did not want to cite him ‘out of context’) from his interview about his views on homeopathy.

I remember attending the delivery of a woman and the contractions were very strong, and painful. She had some homeopathic medicine to take just at that time to make those contractions more regular and useful: less intense but longer and less brusque. I saw that happening within minutes, and I was thinking, “That’s very impressive.” That’s probably the time when I concluded that there is something to it. 

I witnessed the action of homeopathic medicines on pets also, on young children. I had enough personal anecdotes that I could say there is something more than just suggestion, or placebo, or just the simple act of being cared for. My attitude is to say, “There are enough signs to say that it’s really worth exploring more why it works, how it works, when does it work.” We are past the stage where we can say, “No, there is nothing.” It has been around for a long time and if was just mere placebo effect, it would have gone away, as so many different techniques did. 

If you look at the history of science, you find many instances where people first said, for example, “The theory of gravity explains everything.” And when some things are discovered that show it didn’t work in certain very narrow cases, there’s an understanding that we have to adjust. But every time you have to make that adjustment, there is a great body of people who say, “No, it cannot be.” 

The main argument against homeopathy is that a remedy is very, very diluted, so it cannot work. My reaction to that is to examine what happens when you dilute something. The act of dilution is not very simple. Those molecules are interacting together, they are interacting with the walls of the container, they are interacting with the solvent, and this interaction does not adhere to a precise mathematical law. The skeptics say, “You divide the number of molecules by 100 each time, so after awhile, there is less than one chance to find one single molecule.” They have their math right, but they have their physics wrong. 

Chemists try to use very pure substances. When you buy your reagent, you buy it at 99.999 percent pure. But you don’t have anything that’s 100 percent pure. It would take an infinite amount of energy to get rid of the last impurity. What I think we should explore is the fact that after a certain number of dilutions, the process is not very efficient at removing the last molecules. So there is always something that stays. That’s one thing. 

The second thing is in pharmacology for years, we were interested in the ability of large quantities of substances. But what about small ones? I always use the example of butterflies that can sense pheromones at great distances, salmon finding their way back to their native creek from far away, to sharks being able to detect blood in a huge amount of water. Biology uses very small quantities. In cells, you have communication between cells using a few molecules of a certain substance—and it works. 

I don’t pretend that I’ve put A and B and C together, and I’m able to provide you with a complete explanation. But I would say those are things to explore. Already the research that exists points to possible action of homeopathic dilution on activation or deactivation of genes. I won’t go into details, but I welcome the skepticism, I think it’s very constructive. But what I don’t really like is people whose mind is set on their misconception of what exactly a dilution is. Of course homeopathy doesn’t violate the laws of physics and chemistry, because that’s absurd. 

My first role is pharmacy development. I look at what are the tools that allow pharmacists to know what homeopathy is and for a certain number of them, how to use homeopathy. I consider how to train them, how to have them integrate homeopathy in their practice, because the goal isn’t about replacing other medicines with homeopathy. My first role is to say to pharmacists, “You have to know what it is because these are drugs. If you don’t believe in them, you don’t have to use them, but at least you need to be able to answer customers, your patients.”

And the second thing is that for those who are interested in knowing more, I translate books from France, I design trainings, activities, interactions, so they are placed in a situation of recommending and deciding if it is appropriate to recommend homeopathy, and what treatment is adapted to that particular person. 

“Before coming to the conference, I researched what homeopathy is, and you will have a hard time telling me that it can work.” I talk with them to explore a little bit more what it is. We speak the language of pharmacology together, and what strikes me is that very soon, they are into it. They say, “Okay, we see the logic of it.” They realize that they have a tool where they can relieve without doing any harm, without interactions, so their interest is piqued. And they recognize that the mode of action of conventional medicines is not as clear as we thought.

Pharmacists are very pragmatic people—you cannot tell them fairy tales. When they see it, explore it, and use it, then when I meet them later, they tell me, “That stuff works.” And I ask, “Yeah, but do you know how it works?” They don’t, but they see the patient coming back happy. 

Of course, they are interested in the research and knowing how it works, but I just give them what we know in clinical research and we discuss it. They see that there is ongoing research and one day we’ll find more. But meanwhile, they are using the product. 

 You have two approaches. What I call “the user approach” is when people may not really completely understand how a medicine works, but they’re interested in taking it for stress or for allergies, whatever it might be, to see if it works for them. They’re interested in how this medicine will affect them, how should they take it. If it works for them, then great. 

Then you have what I call the “intellectual approach”—which is concerned about more cultural, philosophical, and social questions: what is the place of homeopathic medicine in today’s medicine, what are its principles, its history, its perspective. Is it a philosophy, is it a cult, what is it? My role is to try to give context for what homeopathy is. It’s a simple tool in the toolbox—we don’t exactly know all the details of how it works. And this is what we know, and this is what we don’t know, and this is what we speculate might be the way it works. People educate themselves. 

 Every day, I say, homeopathy doesn’t vaccinate, homeopathy doesn’t cure cancer, homeopathy doesn’t cure diabetes. It can relieve some of the symptoms or side effects of the treatments, but it has limits like every therapy. I fight against those outrageous claims and sometimes people that are really fanatical advocates for homeopathy do much worse for the cause. And I have to tell them: You cannot say that. It is untrue and it is dangerous. This is why I think pharmacists listen to me, because I’m not telling them to change their practice and their ethics. I’m telling them, this is another tool and this is how to use it properly. But there are fundamentals that are still there and will be there for a long time. You cannot replace vaccination by any other techniques—it’s unethical, it’s dangerous, it’s deadly. So we don’t do that. I’m completely against these kinds of claims.

 Let’s explore that: a patient suffering with AIDS, advanced infection with HIV, with immunity that decreases. Or a patient treated with antiretroviral therapy, they still have sometimes diarrhea, because their immune system is not able to fight everything. They still have side effects or anxiety. We want their treatment to be as comfortable as possible, because we want them to keep using the treatment. The same thing with cancer. The patient says, “I don’t want to have chemotherapy because it’s hurting me, it’s very difficult and uncomfortable.” We have with homeopathy ways to reduce nausea, for instance, then we increase the comfort of the patient, and the outcome is always better. That’s the framework. Someone who would say, “Oh, you have AIDS, throw away your antiretrovirals, I’m going to treat you with homeopathy”—that person would be a murderer

We develop tools to help people self-medicate. We say, “Okay, you’re stressed out, you need to sleep a little bit, you’re lacking sleep. Take this for a certain period of time—if it works for you, fine. If it doesn’t, doesn’t, stop it.” For people with what we call “self-limiting conditions”— a cold or a cough—we have good tools with warnings and precautions and things like that for them to self-medicate. And in the warnings, we tell them, “If you experience that kind of fever, if you have that symptom, see a doctor.” We don’t say see a homeopath, we say see a doctor. And among these doctors, there are doctors who have added in different techniques and some of them are using homeopathy when appropriate. For me, what is most important, is that a patient sees someone who is medically qualified.  

For people who want to further explore the possibilities that homeopathy offers, I recommend that they see a physician who is skilled in homeopathy but will not use homeopathy for everything. And is able to diagnose. A physician will tell you, “In this case, I can do something with homeopathy, or, in that case, I cannot use homeopathy.”

As I have once worked as a junior doctor in a homeopathic hospital (the full story is here), I knew of course all these arguments and fallacies. Nevertheless, I still ask myself: HOW CAN PHARMACISTS GET CONVINCED IN THIS WAY? ARE THEY REALLY CONVINCED? OR DO THEY JUST DO IT FOR THE MONEY?

I do not feel like prejudging these questions just now. But I do hope to hear from my readers, particularly from the pharmacists amongst them, what they think.

I thought I had seen everything that is lamentable about homeopathy. When I came across this article, I had to change my opinion. It is a more despicable, unethical and dangerous promotion of falsehoods than I could have imagined.

Strong words? Read for yourself:

There are treatments that can heal vaccine damage, but few physicians in the conventional medical care system know about them, since vaccine injuries are usually denied as the cause of any illness. Some parents with autistic children report that homeopathy has completely reversed their children’s autism and healed other serious health conditions caused by vaccines. This article explains how homeopathic remedies can bring about healing for many types of vaccine injuries.

Homeopathy is not the only treatment that has helped children and adults recover from vaccine damage, but it is the one that is the focus of this article. I will describe how homeopathy can bring about a true cure for the harm that vaccines have caused to children and adults…

It is a tragedy when a normal young child suddenly starts losing the ability to speak sentences or even to speak words after receiving vaccines. The ability to have positive social interactions with other children or adults can disappear in a matter of days after vaccines have been given to children. Intellectual development can be lost and even successful potty training skills can disappear. The ability to sit quietly, listen to a story being read, and the ability to learn can suddenly be replaced with hand flapping, body spinning, head banging, food allergies, asthma, agitation, hyperactivity, learning disabilities, chronic colds and fevers, constant stomach pain, constipation, and a general failure to grow and thrive. There are also serious consequences for adults who use vaccines. Formerly productive adults can lose their independence and become paralyzed, infertile, chronically ill, and even die, because of vaccine damage. It happens every day, yet few people make the connection between their illnesses and vaccine use…

By the time parents fully awaken to the harm that has occurred to their children, many have already resigned themselves to a lifetime of caretaking their disabled children. Some parents will even receive counsel from their physicians to give up their children to the care of the state, because they have no treatments to offer and can offer no hope of recovery. Some physicians will try to convince parents that this is a genetic problem that might be cured someday, but not in the near future. The conventional medical care system leaves parents feeling like helpless victims without any good options. The truth is there are good options for restoring health after vaccine damage, and homeopathy is one of them!…

Homeopathy does not wage war on disease and seek to destroy the symptoms of disease through brute force. It does not bring substances into the body as is done with allopathic drugs, for the purpose of doing hand to hand combat against disease. Instead, homeopathy and its remedies are intended to gently stimulate and strengthen the body so that it can overcome illness through its own vital force and strength. Homeopathic remedies restore the natural ability of the body to defend itself against illness and to heal itself. When this happens, a person is truly cured of what ails him…

Allopathic drugs and treatments do not have a positive effect upon the vital force in the body. They do not improve the strength of a person, and they do not provide for physical, emotional, or mental renewal. Rather, they just suppress symptoms, and add side effects…

You may also wish to ask for a referral from your chiropractor, osteopath, or acupuncturist. Such practitioners are often aware of good homeopaths in the area. Sometimes the person who is responsible for managing supplements and remedies sold at health food stores will be aware of experienced homeopaths as well…

I know, apologists will claim that such extreme idiocy is always the work of a few ‘rotten apples’, even most homeopaths would object to such dangerous and amoral lunacy. But the fact is, they don’t! If you disagree, please show me the protests from homeopaths or other alternative practitioners.

When Wakefield was shown to be a fraud endangering public health with his bogus claims about vaccine damage, there were protests in abundance, and he was ousted by the medical and scientific communities. Where are the protests by the alternative medicine fraternity against this article and the many, many others like it?

NOBODY SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO ENDANGER PUBLIC HEALTH IN THIS WAY.

PS

In case you wonder who wrote the above article, it is John P. Thomas. He is a health writer for Health Impact News. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. John specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.

If you talk to advocates of homeopathy, you are bound to hear claims that are false or misleading; in fact, you hear them so regularly that you might begin to doubt the truth. For those who have such doubts or are in need of some correct counter-arguments, I have listed here those 12 bogus claims which, in my experience, are most common together with short, suitable, and factual rebuttals.

1) THERE IS NOTHING MYSTERIOUS ABOUT HOMEOPATHY’S MODE OF ACTION, IT WORKS LIKE VACCINATIONS

This argument is used by enthusiasts in response the fact that most homeopathic remedies are too highly diluted to have pharmacological effects. Vaccines are also highly diluted and they are, of course, very effective; therefore, so the bogus notion, there is nothing odd about homeopathy.

The argument is wrong on several levels; the easiest way to refute, I think, it is to point out that vaccines contain measurable amounts of material and lead to measurable changes in the immune system. By contrast, the typical homeopathic remedy (beyond the C12 potency) contains not a single molecule of an active substance and leads to no measurable changes in any system.

2) SIGNIFICANTLY MORE CONTROLLED CLINICAL TRIALS OF HOMEOPATHY ARE POSITIVE THAN NEGATIVE

Several websites of homeopathic organisations make this claim and even provide simple statistics to back it up. Consequently, many homeopathy fans have adopted it.

The statistics they present show that x % of studies are positive, y % are negative and z % are neutral; the whole point is that x is larger than y. The percentage figures may even be correct but they rely on the spurious definitions used: positive = superior to placebo, negative = placebo superior to homeopathy, neutral = no difference between homeopathy and placebo. The latter category was created so that homeopathy comes out trumps.

For all intents and purposes, a study where the experimental treatment is no better than placebo is not a study neutral but a negative result. Thus the negative category in such statistics must be y + z which is, of course, larger than x. In other words, the majority of trials is, in truth, negative.

3) HOMEOPATHY IS SUPPORTED BY NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS

I don’t know of a single Nobel Prize winner who has stated or implied that homeopathy works better than a placebo. Some have tried to find a mechanism of action for homeopathy by doing some basic research and have published theories about it. None of those has been accepted by science.

And if there ever should be a Nobel Prize winner or similarly brilliant person who supports homeopathy, this would merely show that even bright individuals can make mistakes!

4) HOMEOPATHY IS SAFE

Tell that to the child that has just been reported to have died because her parents used homeopathy for an ear infection which (could have been easily treated with antibiotics but) degenerated into a brain abscess with homeopathic therapy. There are many more such tragic cases than I care to remember.

The risks of homeopathy are, of course, minor compared to many conventional treatments, but the risk/benefit balance of homeopathy can never be positive because, unlike those high risk conventional treatments, it has no benefit.

5) HOMEOPATHY DOES NOT LEND ITSELF TO BEING TESTED IN CLINICAL TRIALS

The best way to disprove this argument is to point out that ~ 250 controlled clinical trials are currently available. Every homeopath on the planet boasts about clinical trials – provided they are positive.

6) HOMEOPATHY WORKS VIA QUANTUM ENTANGLEMENT

I do not understand quantum mechanics and, I suspect, neither do the homeopaths who use this argument. But physicists who do understand this subject well are keen to stress that homeopathy cannot be explained in this way.

7) THERE IS NO PROOF THAT HOMEOPATHY DOES NOT WORK

The absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, homeopaths like to exclaim. And they are, of course, correct! However, they forget that, science cannot prove a negative and that, in routine health care, we do not even look for a proof of ineffectiveness. We use those treatments that have a positive proof of effectiveness – everything else is irresponsible.

8) EVEN IF HOMEOPATHY WERE JUST A PLACEBO, IT STILL HELPS PATIENTS AND IS THEREFORE A USEFUL TREATMENT

It is true, of course, that placebo effects can help patients. But it is not true that, for generating a placebo response, we need a placebo. If a clinician administers an effective treatment with compassion, the patient will benefit from a placebo response plus from the specific effects of the treatment. Only giving placebos is therefore tantamount to cheating the patient.

9) THERE IS A WORLDWIDE CONSPIRACY AGAINST HOMEOPATHY

In a way, this argument merely suggests that homeopathic remedies are ineffective in treating paranoia. I have not ever seen a jot of evidence for it – and neither can anyone who uses this claim produce any.

10) YOU NEED TO BE A HOMEOPATH TO BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND AND ADEQUATELY JUDGE THE VALUE OF HOMEOPATHY

With this notion, homeopaths want to claim that the critics of homeopathy are incompetent. It is like saying that only people who believe in god are allowed to criticise religion. By definition, homeopaths are believers, and therefore they are unlikely to be free of bias when judging the value of homeopathy. Homeopathy is a health technology that must be evaluated like all other health technologies: by independent scientists who know their job.

11) HOMEOPATHY HAS BEEN PROVEN TO WORK FOR LITTLE CHILDREN AND ANIMALS

The argument here is that animals and children cannot possibly respond to placebo. Therefore homeopathy must be more than a placebo.

This notion is twice wrong. Firstly, both animals and children can respond to placebo, if only ‘by proxy’, i.e. via their carers. Secondly, if we consider the totality of the reliable data, we find that neither for children nor for animals is the evidence convincingly positive.

12) HOMEOPATHY HAS BEEN USED VERY SUCCESSFULLY IN MAJOR EPIDEMICS, AND THAT FACT IS PROOF ENOUGH FOR ITS EFFICACY

Yes, there are some rather fascinating historical accounts which homeopaths interpret in this fashion. But if we look a little closer, we invariably find explanations which are much more plausible than the assumption of homeopathy’s effectiveness. Epidemiological observations of this nature can almost never establish cause and effect, and the clinical outcome could have been due to a myriad of confounders unrelated to homeopathy.

Today, I came across this intriguing bit of information:

This week is homeopathy awareness week and once again the controversial practice is in the news.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society does not endorse homeopathy as a form of treatment. In its reference guide on homeopathic and herbal products, the RPS makes it clear that there is no evidence of the clinical efficacy of homeopathic products, beyond a placebo effect, and no scientific basis for the practice.

The RPS Chief Scientist Professor Jayne Lawrence has blogged on the history of homeopathy and why even in the face of the lack of evidence that it works, people are still actively seeking homeopathic treatment today. Jayne lays down a challenge to the profession; are we ready to remove homeopathy from the shelves of pharmacies?

And here are the relevant passages from Jayne Lawrence’s post:

…it is easy to see why homeopathy, with its use of ultralow doses of the treatment material, became so popular so quickly, despite the fact that a clinical trial performed as early as 1835 showed that homeopathy as a method of treatment was wholly ineffective.

…for homeopathy to work as claimed, we would have to completely revise our understanding of science. Any scientific evidence claiming to support homeopathy has either been shown to be flawed or not repeatable under controlled conditions. Furthermore, systematic reviews of modern clinical trials have supported the first early clinical trial showing that homeopathy has no more clinical effect than a placebo.

Is homeopathy’s popularity due to a distrust of modern medicines as has been recently suggested by the Chief Medical Officer for England who has just called for an independent review of the safety and efficacy of medicines? Or it is that patients are worried about the side effects associated with medicines, preferring what they perceive to be a safer approach; after all homeopathic preparations have not unsurprisingly no known toxic effects in over 200 years of use? Whatever the reason, as an evidence-based profession, why do we continue to sell homeopathic preparations in our pharmacies when the evidence shows that they do not work?

The public have a right to expect pharmacists and other health professionals to be open and honest about the effectiveness and limitations of treatments. Surely it is now the time for pharmacists to cast homeopathy from the shelves and focus on scientifically based treatments backed by clear clinical evidence.

Read the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Homeopathic and herbal products quick reference guide.

And here are the ‘key points’ of this ‘reference guide’:

• There is no evidence to support the clinical efficacy of homeopathic products beyond a placebo effect, and no scientific basis for homeopathy.

• Pharmacists selling homeopathic products must be competent to do so and be able to discuss with patients the lack of evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic products and their formulation.

• Pharmacists should ensure, wherever possible, that patients do not stop taking their prescribed conventional medication when they take a homeopathic product.

• Pharmacists should be aware that patients requesting homeopathic products may have serious underlying undiagnosed medical conditions that would require referral to another healthcare professional.

• Pharmacists should not knowingly sell homeopathic products for serious medical conditions. However, it is recognised people will self select homeopathic products from open display often without consulting a pharmacist.

• Royal Pharmaceutical Society does not endorse homeopathy as a form of treatment.

And finally, here is my very brief and somewhat impatient comment on all this.

I have pointed out these facts ad nauseam for many years. At one stage, pharmacists used to invite me to their conferences for me to tell them so. When this became too unpopular, I published articles and blog posts about this issue. Some pharmacists agreed with me, but their majority seemed just not interested. Some argued that, in the large chain pharmacies, they have little choice but to comply with their employer’s demands. Some found even more lame excuses. I usually replied that there is no choice: pharmacists have ethical codes that clearly prohibit the sale of bogus remedies. Selling homeopathic remedies in pharmacies means violating important ethical principles. Pharmacists have to decide whether they want to be shop keepers or health care professionals.

IT IS HIGH TIME THAT WORDS ARE FOLLOWED BY ACTIONS FROM PHARMACISTS AND THEIR PROFESSIONAL ORGANISATIONS.

You may feel that homeopaths are bizarre, irrational, perhaps even stupid – but you cannot deny their tenacity. Since 200 years, they are trying to convince us that their treatments are effective beyond placebo. And they seem to get more and more bold with their claims: while they used to suggest that homeopathy was effective for trivial conditions like a common cold, they now have their eyes on much more ambitious things. Two recent studies, for instance, claim that homeopathic remedies can help cancer patients.

The aim of the first study was to evaluate whether homeopathy influenced global health status and subjective wellbeing when used as an adjunct to conventional cancer therapy.

In this pragmatic randomized controlled trial, 410 patients, who were treated by standard anti-neoplastic therapy, were randomized to receive or not receive classical homeopathic adjunctive therapy in addition to standard therapy. The main outcome measures were global health status and subjective wellbeing as assessed by the patients. At each of three visits (one baseline, two follow-up visits), patients filled in two questionnaires for quantification of these endpoints.

The results show that 373 patients yielded at least one of three measurements. The improvement of global health status between visits 1 and 3 was significantly stronger in the homeopathy group by 7.7 (95% CI 2.3-13.0, p=0.005) when compared with the control group. A significant group difference was also observed with respect to subjective wellbeing by 14.7 (95% CI 8.5-21.0, p<0.001) in favor of the homeopathic as compared with the control group. Control patients showed a significant improvement only in subjective wellbeing between their first and third visits.

Our homeopaths concluded that the results suggest that the global health status and subjective wellbeing of cancer patients improve significantly when adjunct classical homeopathic treatment is administered in addition to conventional therapy.

The second study is a little more modest; it had the aim to explore the benefits of a three-month course of individualised homeopathy (IH) for survivors of cancer.

Fifteen survivors of any type of cancer were recruited by a walk-in cancer support centre. Conventional treatment had to have taken place within the last three years. Patients scored their total, physical and emotional wellbeing using the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy for Cancer (FACIT-G) before and after receiving four IH sessions.

The results showed that 11 women had statistically positive results for emotional, physical and total wellbeing based on FACIT-G scores.

And the conclusion: Findings support previous research, suggesting CAM or individualised homeopathy could be beneficial for survivors of cancer.

As I said: one has to admire their tenacity, perhaps also their chutzpa – but not their understanding of science or their intelligence. If they were able to think critically, they could only arrive at one conclusion: STUDY DESIGNS THAT ARE WIDE OPEN TO BIAS ARE LIKELY TO DELIVER BIASED RESULTS.

The second study is a mere observation without a control group. The reported outcomes could be due to placebo, expectation, extra attention or social desirability. We obviously need an RCT! But the first study was an RCT!!! Its results are therefore more convincing, aren’t they?

No, not at all. I can repeat my sentence from above: The reported outcomes could be due to placebo, expectation, extra attention or social desirability. And if you don’t believe it, please read what I have posted about the infamous ‘A+B versus B’ trial design (here and here and here and here and here for instance).

My point is that such a study, while looking rigorous to the naïve reader (after all, it’s an RCT!!!), is just as inconclusive when it comes to establishing cause and effect as a simple case series which (almost) everyone knows by now to be utterly useless for that purpose. The fact that the A+B versus B design is nevertheless being used over and over again in alternative medicine for drawing causal conclusions amounts to deceit – and deceit is unethical, as we all know.

My overall conclusion about all this:

QUACKS LOVE THIS STUDY DESIGN BECAUSE IT NEVER FAILS TO PRODUCE FALSE POSITIVE RESULTS.

The principal aim of this survey was to map centres across Europe that provide public health services and operating within the national health system in integrative oncology.

Information was received from 123 (52.1 %) of the 236 centres contacted. Forty-seven out of 99 responding centres meeting inclusion criteria (47.5 %) provided integrative oncology treatments, 24 from Italy and 23 from other European countries. The number of patients seen per year was on average 301.2 ± 337. Among the centres providing these kinds of therapies, 33 (70.2 %) use fixed protocols and 35 (74.5 %) use systems for the evaluation of results. Thirty-two centres (68.1 %) were research-active.

The alternative therapies most frequently provided were acupuncture 26 (55.3 %), homeopathy 19 (40.4 %), herbal medicine 18 (38.3 %) and traditional Chinese medicine 17 (36.2 %); anthroposophic medicine 10 (21.3 %); homotoxicology 6 (12.8 %); and other therapies 30 (63.8 %).

Treatments were mainly directed to reduce adverse reactions to chemo-radiotherapy (23.9 %), in particular nausea and vomiting (13.4 %) and leucopenia (5 %). The alternative treatments were also used to reduce pain and fatigue (10.9 %), to reduce side effects of iatrogenic menopause (8.8 %) and to improve anxiety and depression (5.9 %), gastrointestinal disorders (5 %), sleep disturbances and neuropathy (3.8 %).

The authors concluded that mapping of the centres across Europe is an essential step in the process of creating a European network of centres, experts and professionals constantly engaged in the field of integrative oncology, in order to increase, share and disseminate the knowledge in this field and provide evidence-based practice.

DISSEMINATE KNOWLEDGE?

EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTICE?

WHAT KNOWLEDGE?

WHAT EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTICE?

Where is the evidence that homeopathy or homotoxicology or Chinese medicine are effective for any of the conditions listed above? The answer, of course, is that it does not exist.

I fear the results of this survey show foremost one thing: ‘integrative oncology’ is little else but a smokescreen behind which quacks submit desperate patients to bogus treatments.

If I tell you that I just read a book by a homeopath writing about homeopathy, would you doubt my sanity? But I did, and I read it in one session with great interest. The book is (in German) by Natalie Grams (perhaps I should mention that I had never heard of her before Springer sent me her book), a German doctor; it is entitled HOMOEOPATHIE NEU GEDACHT (Homeopathy newly considered). I liked it a lot.

The author discusses in some detail why basically everything homeopaths believe in is erroneous. You might think: so what, we all knew that. True, we did, but she then she concludes that homeopathy has still some value as some sort of psychotherapy. The remedy is effective because the consultation with a homeopath gives it a ‘meaning’ which is tailor-made for each patient. Now you will think: that this is hardly original, others have considered this before. And you are, of course, correct again.

So why did this book fascinate me? Mostly because, in a few passages, Natalie Grams tells her very personal story how she matured from an enthusiast to rationalist. This could be reminiscent of my own life, but it isn’t (and by no means do I agree with everything doctor Grams writes). I found myself in a homeopathic hospital directly after medical school, became a homeopath (of sorts), later I learnt to think critically and researched homeopathy. As a scientist, when the evidence was squarely negative, I said so loud and clear (I published the whole story with all the relevant details here).

Natalie Grams studied medicine and seemed to have become disenchanted with the lack of humanity in mainstream medicine (as a clinician, I often felt this too but always concluded that the solution was not to turn away from medicine but to re-introduce more humanity into it). Doctor Grams then experienced serious health problems which were cured/alleviated by homeopathy. This made her look into the subject a little closer. She decided to do the necessary courses, uncritically adopted most of what she was told by die-hard homeopaths and eventually fulfilled her dream: she opened her own private practice as a homeopath. In other words, she dropped out of real medicine and into homeopathy, while I, in a way, did the reverse.

Doctor Grams’ practice seemed to have been successful; many of her patients, even some with serious conditions, got better. All she had been told about homeopathy seemed to get confirmed in her clinical routine. Homeopaths, like most clinicians, remember their success stories and tend to forget their failures. If this happens over and over during an entire life-time, the last doubts a budding homeopath may have once had dissolve into thin air. The result is a clinician who is utterly convinced that like cures like and high dilutions are powerful medicines because water has a memory.

Up to this point, Dr Grams career is a textbook example of a homeopath who would bet on the life of her children that homeopathy is correct and science is wrong. The world is full of them, and I have personally met many. They are usually kind, empathetic and dedicated clinicians. But they are also totally impervious to reason. They have their experience and NOBODY is allowed to question it. If you do, you are no longer their friend.

This is where the typical story of homeopaths ends… and they happily lied ever after (to themselves, their patients and everyone else). Not so in the case of Natalie Grams!

When she was still an enthusiast, she decided to write a book. It was going to be a book that showed how good homeopathy was and how bad its critics were. To do this responsibly, she read a lot of the original literature. What she found shocked her. When reading her account, I could repeatedly feel the agony she must have felt through her discoveries. Eventually, she had no choice but to agree with most of the arguments of homeopathy’s critics and disagreed with practically all of the arguments of her fellow homeopaths.

I predict that Natalie’s painful ‘journey’ has not yet come to an end; she now argues that the 200 year old assumptions of homeopathy are all obsolete and homeopathy is certainly not an effective drug therapy. However, it may turn out to be a valuable ‘talking therapy’, she believes.

I hate to say it, but I am fairly certain that she will have to go through further agony and find that her discovery is not truly workable. It might have some theoretical value but, for a whole number of reasons, it will not function in real life heath care.

My hope is that Natalie will find her way back to what she calls ‘normal medicine’ (there is, of course, the danger that she does the opposite and wanders off into even more esoteric grounds). We need doctors like her who have empathy, compassion and understanding for their patients. These are qualities many homeopaths who I have met have in abundance – but these are qualities that belong not into the realm of quackery, they belong into real medicine.

The Royal Australian College of General  Practitioners (RACGP) just issued an important statement on homeopathy which, in several ways, goes beyond previous announcements on this subject. I take the liberty of reproducing it here in full:

The RACGP supports the use of evidence-based medicine, in which current research information is used as the basis for clinical decision-making. In light of strong evidence to confirm that homeopathy has no effect beyond that of placebo as a treatment for various clinical conditions, the position of the RACGP is:

1. Medical practitioners should not practice homeopathy, refer patients to homeopathic practitioners, or recommend homeopathic products to their patients.

2. Pharmacists should not sell, recommend, or support the use of homeopathic products.

3. Homeopathic alternatives should not be used in place of conventional immunisation.

4. Private health insurers should not supply rebates for or otherwise support homeopathic services or products.

Background

The contention that homeopathy is an effective treatment is not supported by evidence from systematic literature reviews. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) analysed the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy in treating a range of clinical conditions and released a position statement [1] in March 2015. The NHMRC’s review concluded homeopathy does not produce health benefits over and above that of placebo, or equivalent to that of another treatment.[2] Crucially, the report states that there are “no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective” as a treatment.

While not covered in the NHMRC’s review, it is also the case that homeopathic alternatives to conventional vaccination do not prevent communicable diseases or increase protective antibodies to disease. The National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance has advised that there are no studies of sufficient quality to demonstrate the safety or effectiveness of ‘homeopathic vaccines’ for protection against disease.[3] Indeed, there is no plausible biological mechanism of action by which these products could prevent infection.[4]

Harms associated with homeopathy

Homeopathic products are sometimes considered harmless as they are generally administered at a high dilution. Some may not even contain a single molecule of the original source material. However, there are a number of risks associated with the use of homeopathy.

Delaying or avoiding conventional medical care

When the use of homeopathy causes a person to delay or avoid consultation with a registered medical practitioner or reject conventional medical approaches, serious and sometimes fatal consequences can occur. As evidenced by recent Australian court findings, spurious claims made by homeopathic practitioners[5] and retailers[6] can mislead individuals about the effectiveness of conventional medicine. When homeopathic vaccines are used as an alternative to conventional immunisation, both the individual and the community are left exposed to preventable diseases.

Problems associated with unregulated products

Although homeopathic products manufactured in Australia are regulated as medicines under the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989, products sold on international websites may not meet Australian quality and safety standards. These products may be of particular concern when materials from problematic sources are employed in the preparation (e.g., pathogenic organs or tissues; causative agents such as bacteria, fungi, parasites, ova, yeast, and virus particles; disease products; excretions or secretions; heavy metals and toxins such as aconitum, kerosene and thallium). Impurities of source material and contamination associated with poor manufacturing processes also present threats to the quality and safety of these products.[7]

Direct adverse effects

Various direct harms associated with the use of homeopathic products have been noted in the literature, including allergic reaction, drug interactions, and complications related to the ingestion of toxic substances.[8]

The importance of patient-centred practice

The RACGP supports the concept of patient-centred practice, in which the values, preferences, and personal healthcare philosophy of the patient are respected and individuals play an important role in their own healthcare. An estimated six per cent of Australians use homeopathy over the course of a year.[9] It is important that these patients feel comfortable in discussing their use of complementary and alternative medicines with all members of their treatment team.

It is good practice for medical practitioners to initiate conversations with patients about their use of or intention to use homeopathy, and assist patients to think critically about the efficacy and safety of homeopathy so that they may make informed healthcare decisions.

Private health insurance and homeopathy

Many private health insurers provide ancillary (extras) cover that subsidises homeopathic treatment, and the individual’s costs in taking out this cover are subsidised under the Australian Government’s private health insurance rebate. The RACGP is concerned that health insurance premiums continue to rise as funds disburse significant sums for the use of homeopathy and other natural therapies lacking rigorous evidentiary support. In the 2013–14 financial year, health insurers paid out $164 million in benefits for natural therapies, up by almost 60 per cent from 2010–11.[10]

The RACGP also notes that offering subsidies for the use of homeopathy sends a confusing message to consumers. Listing homeopathic treatments alongside evidence-based modalities in a list of member benefits lends legitimacy to a practice that is not supported by scientific data.

References

1. National Health and Medical Research Council. NHMRC Statement: Statement on Homeopathy. Canberra: NHMRC; 2015.

2. National Health and Medical Research Council. NHMRC Information Paper: Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions. Canberra: NHMRC; 2015.

3. National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance. Homeopathy and vaccination [fact sheet].2014 [cited 2015 April]. Available from http://www.ncirs.edu.au/immunisation/factsheets/homeopathyvaccination-
fact-sheet.pdf

4. Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing. Myths and realities: Responding to arguments against vaccination. A guide for providers. Canberra: DoHA; 2013.

5. Coronial inquest into the death of Penelope Dingle. State Coroner of Western Australia, 2010.

6. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v Homeopathy Plus! Pty Ltd. FCA, 2014.

7. World Health Organization. Safety issues in the preparation of homeopathic medicines. Geneva: WHO; 2009.

8. Posadzki P, Alotaibi A, Ernst E. Adverse effects of homeopathy: a systematic review of published case reports and case series. International Journal of Clinical Practice 2012 Dec;66(12): 1178–88.

9. Xue CCL, Zhang AL, Lin V, Da Costa C, Story DF. Complementary and alternative medicine use in Australia: a national population-based survey. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2007; 13(16):643–50.

10. Private Health Insurance Administration Council. Operations of the Private Health Insurers Annual Report 2013–14. Canberra: PHIAC; 2014.

I think this is a very good statement:

  • it is based on the best evidence currently available,
  • it is concise and to the point,
  • it covers all the necessary ground,
  • it provides valuable and practical recommendations.

Perhaps I should mention that it came as a complete surprise to me, and I was not involved in any way.

Finally, I would like to express my hope that this statement will be adopted in Australia and send a powerful signal to organisations across the world to issue similar recommendations for the benefit of vulnerable patients who still fall victim to bogus claims by homeopaths every day.

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