The aim of this paper was to systematically review surveys of 12-month prevalence of homeopathy use by the general population worldwide. Studies were identified via database searches to October 2015. Study quality was assessed using a six-item tool. All estimates were in the context of a survey which also reported prevalence of any complementary and alternative medicine use. A total of 36 surveys were included. Of these, 67% met four of six quality criteria.
Twelve-month prevalence of treatment by a homeopath was reported in 24 surveys of adults (median 1.5%, range 0.2–8.2%). Estimates for children were similar to those for adults. Rates in the USA, UK, Australia and Canada all ranged from 0.2% to 2.9% and remained stable over the years surveyed (1986–2012). Twelve-month prevalence of all use of homeopathy (purchase of over-the-counter homeopathic medicines and treatment by a homeopath) was reported in 10 surveys of adults (median 3.9%, range 0.7–9.8%) while a further 11 surveys which did not define the type of homeopathy use reported similar data. Rates in the USA and Australia ranged from 1.7% to 4.4% and remained stable over the years surveyed. The highest use was reported by a survey in Switzerland where homeopathy is covered by mandatory health insurance.
The authors concluded that each year a small but significant percentage of these general populations use homeopathy. This includes visits to homeopaths as well as purchase of over-the-counter homeopathic medicines.
These data thus indicate that the percentage of the adult general population using homeopathy over the previous 12 months was in the range of 0.7–9.8%, with a median estimate of 3.9%, and the percentage accessing treatment by a homeopath over the previous 12 months was in the range of 0.2–8.2%, with a median estimate of 1.5%. The data also suggest that, over the last few decades, use of homeopathy has remained fairly stable. These facts are in sharp contrast to the claims by homeopaths that:
- Homeopathy is hugely popular.
- Homeopathy is being used by more and more people across the globe.
- Homeopathy is the medicine of the future.
The well-documented and undeniable unpopularity of homeopathy begs the question, I think, why so many people seem to get so excited about homeopathy. The level of usage is nothing to write home about! Therefore, why don’t we just put it down to an aberration like believing the earth is flat? Why don’t we just concede that some minor, harmless stupidity will always exist in some people’s minds?
Here are some reasons why:
- It is not about the amount of people using homeopathy, but about the principle that any of the increasingly scarce public funds for healthcare are wasted on something as irrational and useless as homeopathy.
- Homeopathy makes a mockery of EBM.
- Homeopathy and homeopaths are by no means harmless.
- Homeopaths tell too many lies to be allowed to get away with them.
- Homeopathy and its followers systematically undermine rational thought.
THE TELEGRAPH reported that “homeopathic medicines will escape an NHS prescribing ban even though the Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies has dismissed the treatments as ‘rubbish’ and a waste of taxpayers money.”
This sounds insane!
Sorry, I do not know the answer either, but below I offer 10 possible options – so bear with me, please.
The NHS spends around £4 million a year on homeopathic remedies, the article claimed. Sandra Gidley, chairwoman of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: “We are surprised that homeopathy, which has no scientific evidence of effectiveness, is not on the list for review. We are in agreement with NHS England that products with low or no clinical evidence of effectiveness should be reviewed with urgency.”
The NHS Clinical Commissioners, the body which was asked to review which medications should no longer be prescribed for NHS England, said it had included drugs with ‘little or no clinical value’, yet could not offer an explanation why homeopathic medicines had escaped the cut. Julie Wood, Chief Executive, NHS Clinical Commissioners said: “Clinical commissioners have always had to make difficult choices about prioritising how they spend their budget on services, but the finance and demand challenges we face at the moment are unprecedented. Clinical Commissioning Groups have been looking at their medicines spend, and many are already implementing policies to reduce spending on those prescribeable items that have little or no clinical value for patients, and are therefore not an effective use of the NHS pound.”
Under the new rules, NHS doctors will be banned from routinely prescribing items that are cheaply available in chemists. The list includes heartburn pills, paracetamol, hayfever tablets, sun cream, muscle rubs, Omega 3 fish oils, medicine for coughs and colds and travel vaccinations. Coeliacs will also be forced to buy their own gluten-free food.
So, why are homeopathic remedies excluded from this new cost-saving exercise?
I am puzzled!
Is it because:
- The NHS has recently found out that homeopathy is effective after all?
- The officials have forgotten to put homeopathics on the list?
- In times of Brexit, the government cannot be bothered about reason, science and all that?
- The NHS does not need the money?
- Homeopathic globuli look so pretty?
- Our Health Secretary is in love with homeopathy?
- Experts are no longer needed for decision-making?
- EBM has suddenly gone out of fashion?
- Placebos are now all the rage?
- Some influential person called Charles is against it?
Sorry, no prizes for the winner of this quiz!
The love-affair of many nurses with complementary medicine is well-known. We have discussed it many times on this blog – see for instance here, here and here. Yet the reasons for it remain somewhat mysterious, I find. Therefore I was interested to see a new paper on the subject.
The aim of this ‘meta-synthesis‘ was to review, critically, appraise and synthesize the existing qualitative research to develop a new, more substantial interpretation of nurses’ attitudes regarding the, use of complementary therapies by patients. Fifteen articles were included in the review.
Five themes emerged from the data relating to nurses’ attitude towards complementary therapies:
- the strengths and weaknesses of conventional medicine;
- complementary therapies as a way to enhance nursing practice;
- patient empowerment and patient-centeredness;
- cultural barriers and enablers to integration;
- structural barriers and enablers to integration.
Nurses’ support for complementary therapies, the authors of this article claim, is not an attempt to challenge mainstream medicine but rather an endeavour to improve the quality of care available to patients. There are, however, a number of barriers to nurses’ support including institutional culture and clinical context, as well as time and knowledge limitations.
The authors concluded that some nurses promote complementary therapies as an opportunity to personalise care and practice in a humanistic way. Yet, nurses have very limited education in this field and a lack of professional frameworks to assist them. The nursing profession needs to consider how to address current deficiencies in meeting the growing use of complementary therapies by patients.
In my view, there are two most remarkable misunderstandings here:
- While it is undoubtedly laudable that nurses “endeavour to improve the quality of care available to patients”, it has to be said that such an endeavour does not require complementary medicine. Are they implying that with conventional medicine the quality of care cannot be improved?
- I fail to understand why the lack of good evidential support for most complementary therapies did not emerge as a prominent theme. Are nurses not concerned about the (lack of) evidence that underpins their actions?
‘The use of a harmless alternative therapy is not necessarily wrong. Even if the treatment itself is just a placebo, it can help many patients. Some patients feel better with it, and it would be arrogant, high-handed and less than compassionate to reject such therapies simply because they are not supported by sufficient scientific evidence’.
How often have I heard this notion in one or another form?
I hear such words almost every day.
Arguments along these lines are difficult to counter. Any attempt to do so is likely to make us look blinkered, high-handed and less than compassionate.
Yet we all – well almost all – know that the notion is wrong. Not only that, it can be dangerous.
I will try to explain this with a concrete example of a patient employing a harmless alternative remedy with great success… until… well, you’ll see.
The patient is a married women with two kids. She is well known to her doctor because she has suffered from a range of symptoms for years, and the doctor – despite extensive tests – could never find anything really wrong with her. He knows about his patient’s significant psychological problems and has, on occasion, been tempted to prescribe tranquilizers or anti-depressants. Before he does so, however, he tells her to try Rescue Remedies@ (homeopathically diluted placebos from the range of Bach Flower Remedies). The patient is generally ‘alternatively inclined’, seems delighted with this suggestion and only too keen to give it a try.
After a couple of weeks, she reports that the Rescue Remedies (RR) are helping her. She says she can cope much better with stressful situations and has less severe and less frequent headaches or other symptoms. As she embarks on a long period of taking RR more or less regularly, she becomes convinced that the RR are highly effective and uses them whenever needed with apparent success. This goes on for months, and everyone is happy: the patient feels she has finally found a ‘medication that works’, and the doctor (who knows only too well that RR are placebos) is pleased that his patient is suffering less without needing real medication.
Then, a few months later, the patient notices that the RR are becoming less and less effective. Not only that, she also thinks that her headaches have changed and are becoming more intense. As she has been conditioned to believe that the RR are highly effective, she continues to take them. Her doctor too agrees and encourages her to carry on as before. But the pain gets worse and worse. When she develops other symptoms, her doctor initially tries to trivialise them, until they cannot be trivialised any longer. He eventually sends her to a specialist.
The patient has to wait a couple of weeks until an appointment can be arranged. The specialist orders a few tests which take a further two weeks. Finally, he diagnoses a malignant, possibly fast growing brain tumour. The patient has a poor prognosis but nevertheless agrees to an operation. Thereafter, she is paralysed on one side, needs 24-hour care, and dies 4 weeks post-operatively.
The surgeon is certain that, had he seen the patient several months earlier, the prognosis would have been incomparably better and her life could have been saved.
I suspect that most seasoned physicians have encountered stories which are not dissimilar. Fortunately they often do not end as tragically as this one. We tend to put them aside, and the next time the situation arises where a patient reports benefit from a bogus treatment we think: ‘Even if the treatment itself is just a placebo, it might help. Some patients feel better with it, and it would be arrogant, high-handed and less than compassionate to reject this ‘feel-good factor’.
I hope my story might persuade you that this notion is not necessarily correct.
If you are unable to make your patient feel better without resorting to quackery, my advice is to become a pathologist!!!
A new joint position statement of the Italian Society of Diabetology (SID) and of the Italian Society for the Study of Arteriosclerosis (SISA) has recently been published. In the context of this blog, it seems relevant enough for its summary to be reproduced here:
Evidence showed that LDL-cholesterol lowering is associated with a significant cardiovascular risk reduction. The initial therapeutic approach to hypercholesterolaemia includes dietary modifications but the compliance to recommendations is often inadequate. Some dietary components with potential cholesterol-lowering activity are present in small amounts in food. Therefore, in recent years the use of “nutraceuticals” (i.e., nutrients and/or bioactive compounds with potential beneficial effects on human health) has become widespread. Such substances may be added to foods and beverages, or taken as dietary supplements (liquid preparations, tablets, capsules). In the present manuscript, the cholesterol-lowering activity of some nutraceuticals (i.e. fiber, phytosterols, soy, policosanol, red yeast rice and berberine) will be discussed along with: 1) the level of evidence on the cholesterol-lowering efficacy emerging from clinical trial; 2) the possible side effects associated with their use; 3) the categories of patients who could benefit from their use.
Based on the current literature, the cholesterol-lowering effect of fiber, phytosterols and red yeast rice is consistent and supported by a good level of evidence. Over berberine, there is sufficient evidence showing significant cholesterol-lowering effects, although the results come from studies carried out almost exclusively in Asian populations. Data on the effects of soy are conflicting and, therefore, the strength of recommendation is quite low. The evidence on policosanol is inconclusive.
Although health benefits may arise from the use of nutraceuticals with cholesterol-lowering activity, their use might be also associated with possible risks and pitfalls, some of which are common to all nutraceuticals whereas others are related to specific nutraceuticals.
END OF QUOTE
Many advocates of alternative medicine are highly sceptical of the value of statins. Yet, it seems clear that statins exert considerably larger effects on our lipid profile than nutraceuticals. So, why not use the treatment that is best documented and most efficacious? One answer could lie in the well-known adverse effects of statins. However, can we be sure that nutraceuticals are devoid of serious side-effects? I am not sure that we can: statins have been fully investigated, and we therefore are well-informed about their risks. Nutraceuticals, by contrast, have not been monitored in such detail, and their safety profile is therefore not as well-understood.
Other advocates of alternative medicine argue that cholesterol (I use the term simplistically without differentiating between the ‘good and bad’ cholesterol) has been hyped by the pharmaceutical industry and is, in truth, not nearly as important a risk factor as we have been led to believe. This line of thought would consequently deny the need to lower elevated cholesterol levels and therefore negate the need for cholesterol-lowering treatments. This stance may be popular, particularly in the realm of alternative medicine, but, to the best of my knowledge, it is erroneous.
Obviously, the first line treatment for people with pathological lipid profiles is the adoption of different life-styles, particularly in terms of nutrition. This may well incorporate some of the nutraceuticals mentioned above. If that strategy is unsuccessful in normalizing our blood lipids – and it often is – we should consider the more effective conventional medications; and that unquestionably includes statins.
I do not expect that everyone reading these lines will agree with me, yet, after studying the evidence, this is my honest conclusion – and NO, I am not paid or otherwise rewarded by the pharmaceutical industry or anyone else!
You probably remember: the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) has issued a statement announcing that unsupported claims for homeopathic remedies will be no longer allowed. Specifically, they said that, in future, homeopathic remedies have to be held to the same standard as other medicinal products. In other words, American companies must now have reliable scientific evidence for health-related claims that their products can treat specific conditions and illnesses.
Now the AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF HOMEOPATHY (AIH) has published a rebuttal. It is hilarious and embarrassing in equal measure. Here it is in full (I have only omitted their references – they can be seen in the linked original – and added footnotes in bold square brackets with my very short comments):
START OF QUOTE
November 30, 2016
The American Institute of Homeopathy applauds the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) goal of protecting the American public from false advertising claims, but in a recent circumstance we believe the FTC has overstepped its jurisdictional bounds and promulgated false information in what appears to be a bid to restrict health care choices  available to the American public.
In Response to the recent Enforcement Policy Statement1 and a Consumer Information Blog,2 both issued by the FTC on November 15, 2016, the American Institute of Homeopathy registers our strong concern regarding the content of the following inaccurate statements:
- “Homeopathy… is based on the view that disease symptoms can be treated by minute doses of substances that produce similar symptoms…”
Homeopathy is not based on a “view” or an opinion. It is based on reliable, reproducible, clinically acquired, empiric evidence  gathered through two centuries of corroborated data, assisted by thousands of practitioners worldwide , demonstrating the actions of different medicinal substances in living systems, aka: the science of homeopathy. In fact, the homeopathic scientific community were pioneers of the modern scientific method including the widespread adoption of blinded and placebo controlled studies in 1885 , decades before conventional medicine.3
Homeopathy is not based on a theory or on conjecture, but on principles that have been confirmed by long-studied clinical data, meticulously gathered and analyzed over many years .
- “Many homeopathic products are diluted to such an extent that they no longer contain detectable levels of the initial substance.”
While the dilution and succussion process of formulating homeopathic medicines does reduce the concentration (and the toxicity) of the original substances, detectable amounts of these materials remain quantifiable in the form of nanoparticles  dispersed throughout.4 Multiple independent laboratories, worldwide have confirmed that these nanoparticles persist,5 and that they are biologically active.6 Many other homeopathic products (particularly those sold OTC and described as “low potency”) have dilute amounts of the original substance  that remain chemically detectable by straightforward titration.
- “…homeopathic product claims are not based on modern scientific methods…”
This statement is false and misleading. The active ingredients within most OTC homeopathic products have hundreds or thousands of case reports from physicians who have used these medicines . These reports of direct clinical experiences establish a collective, real-world dataset that demonstrates which conditions have been observed to respond to treatment. Such historical data is similar to the types of information used to demonstrate effectiveness for many conventional OTC medicines on the market today .
The Homeopathic Pharmacopeia Convention of the United States (HPCUS) maintains a formulary describing the appropriate manufacturing standards for homeopathic medicines . Every homeopathic manufacturer member of the American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists in good ethical standing complies with both manufacturing and labeling standards set by the HPCUS. Consumers should be cautious when using any products that are not distinguished by conformance with “HPUS” on the label.
- “…the case for efficacy is based solely on traditional homeopathic theories…”
This statement is false. Neither homeopathy nor homeopathic efficacy is based on any theories. Efficacy for various homeopathic medicines has been established by scientifically reproducible clinical empiric research evidence  and cured patient cases followed over many years . Homeopathy is an evidence-based medical subspecialty rooted in patient care.
- “…there are no valid studies using current scientific methods showing the product’s efficacy.”
While this statement may have limited accuracy with respect to some OTC products, it is false and misleading with respect to most homeopathic medicines listed in the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States. Hundreds of state-of-the-art double-blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled studies, many in peer-reviewed journals, demonstrate the superior efficacy of homeopathic medicines in a wide range of conditions, including asthma,7 depression and anxiety,8 chronic illness,9 allergic rhinitis,10 hypertension,11 headaches/migraines,12 sepsis,13 mild traumatic brain injury,14 otitis media,15 cancer,16 and many other conditions . The American Institute of Homeopathy maintains and continually updates an extensive database, available free to the public, with over 6,000 research articles .17
Multiple meta-analyses published in peer reviewed medical journals that conclude that homeopathic medicine effects are superior to placebo  and that additional study of this therapeutic system is warranted.18,19,20,21,22,23 To that end, we encourage the National Institutes of Health to reverse their current position of blocking funding for homeopathic trials.24
- “…marketing claims that such homeopathic products have a therapeutic effect lack a reasonable basis and are likely misleading…”
The conclusion of whether a product has a “reasonable basis” is entirely irrelevant if that product has demonstrable clinical effectiveness. The important question, when it comes to homeopathy, is whether it is effective in clinical settings, not whether it has a “reasonable basis” for how it works. The mechanism by which homeopathy works differs from conventional medicines , but this fact does not make these products “misleading”.
Several recent class-action lawsuits brought against homeopathic manufacturers confirm that marketing practices were neither deceptive nor misleading .25
The FTC’s inability to formulate a reasonable basis for why homeopathic medicines work should not enter into any governmental enforcement policy statement. The FTC is not a medical organization, lacks expertise in interpreting scientific research , and is not qualified to make any comment on the validity of any field of medicine. To be less misleading, the FTC should exclude opinions from its policy statements.
- “Homeopathy: Not backed by modern science”
Homeopathy, as a system of medicine, does not fall under the purview of the FTC. Therefore, the FTC has been reckless in expressing an opinion of this magnitude. In this situation, the FTC’s comments can only be construed as being prejudicially biased and intentionally discriminatory against homeopathy. Such statements cause unwarranted harm to public trust and damage to a respected traditional system of medicine in the United States .
The American Institute of Homeopathy strongly objects to the FTC’s characterization of the entire field of homeopathic medicine as being without scientific evidence of efficacy. These comments are unqualified and wholly lacking in merit. The release of this Enforcement Policy Statement serves only to align the FTC with several recently released scientifically fraudulent  reports by a variety of pseudoscientists  and lowers the credibility of this valued consumer protection agency.
This type of misinformation should be embarrassing to a government organization striving to be nonpartisan and objective. The FTC owes an apology to the American Institute of Homeopathy as well as the many consumer groups that look toward this agency for fair and accurate information.
END OF QUOTE
1 In healthcare, choice must be restricted to treatments which demonstrably generate more good than harm.
2 The AIH seems to be unaware of the difference between the nature of evidence, anecdote and experience.
3 Fallacy – appeal to popularity.
4 The first randomized, placebo-controlled study of homeopathy was, in fact, published in 1835 – its results were negative.
5 Fallacy – appeal to tradition.
6 The nano-particle explanation of homeopathy is but a theory (at best).
7 Fallacy – appeal to tradition.
8 Fallacy – appeal to authority.
9 Really? Which ones? Examples would help, but I doubt they exist.
10 The proper manufacturing of nonsense must still result in nonsense.
11 See footnote number 2
12 Fallacy – appeal to tradition.
13 For all of these conditions, the totality of the reliable evidence fails to demonstrate efficacy.
14 In this context, only clinical trials are relevant, and their number is nowhere near 6,000.
15 Most of the independent systematic reviews fail to be positive.
16 The mechanism is well-known and is called ‘placebo-effect’.
17 Many class actions also went against the manufacturers of homeopathic preparations.
18 I assume they ‘bought in’ the necessary expertise.
19 Surely, the damage is only to the cash-flow of firms selling bogus products.
20 Really? Name the report you libel here or be quiet!
21 Name the individuals you attack in this way or be quiet!
I must say, I had fun reading this. In fact, I cannot remember having seen a document by an organisation of healthcare professionals which was so embarrassingly nonsensical that it becomes comedy gold. If one of my PhD students, for instance, had submitted such drivel, I would have had no choice but to fail him or her.
Having said that, I need to stress to the AIH:
FULL MARKS FOR AMUSEMENT!!!
Homeopathic remedies are being marketed and sold as though they are medicines, yet highly diluted preparations contain nothing and do nothing. This means consumers are constantly mislead into believing that they are drugs. This situation seems to be changing dramatically in the US, and hopefully – led by the American example – elsewhere as well.
It has been reported that the US Federal Trade Commission issued a statement which said that, in future, homeopathic remedies have to be held to the same standard as other medicinal products. In other words, American companies must now have reliable scientific evidence for health-related claims that their products can treat specific conditions and illnesses.
The ‘Enforcement Policy Statement on Marketing Claims for Over-the-Counter (OTC) Homeopathic Drugs’ makes it clear that “the case for efficacy is based solely on traditional homeopathic theories and there are no valid studies using current scientific methods showing the product’s efficacy.”
However, an [over-the-counter] homeopathic drug claim that is not substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence might not be deceptive if the advertisement or label where it appears effectively communicates that: 1) there is no scientific evidence that the product works; and 2) the product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts. In other words, if no evidence for efficacy exists, companies must advertise this fact clearly on their labelling, and also disclose that claims are today rejected by the majority of the scientific community. Failure to do this will be considered a violation of the FTC Act.
“This is a real victory for reason, science, and the health of the American people,” said Michael De Dora, public policy director for The Center for Inquiry in a statement issued in response to the new act. “The FTC has made the right decision to hold manufacturers accountable for the absolutely baseless assertions they make about homeopathic products.”
The new regulation will make sure that customers are informed explicitly about whether the product they purchase at a pharmacy has any scientific basis. This is important because homeopathic remedies aren’t just ineffective, but they can be dangerous too. The FDA is currently investigating the deaths of 10 babies who were given homeopathic teething tablets that contained deadly nightshade.
“Consumers can’t help but be confused when snake oil is placed on the same pharmacy shelves as real science-based medicine, and they throw away billions of dollars every year on homeopathy based on its false promises,” said De Dora. “The dangers of homeopathy are very real, for when people choose these deceptive, useless products over proven, effective medicine, they risk their health and the health of their families.”
These are clear words indeed; the new regulation is bound to make a dramatic change for homeopathy in the US. The winner will undoubtedly the consumer who can no longer be so openly and shamelessly misled as before. The FTC has set an example for other national regulators who will hopefully follow suit.
I have published many articles on the risks of various alternative treatments (see for instance here, here, here, here, here and here) – not because I am alarmist but because I have always felt very strongly that, for a researcher into alternative medicine, the most important issue must be to make sure users of these therapies are as safe as possible. Usually I differentiated between direct and indirect risks. The former relate to the risks of the treatment and include, for instance, liver damage caused by a herbal remedy or stroke due to neck manipulation. The latter are mainly due to the poor, often irresponsible advice given by many therapists.
A recent article adopted the same terminology when reviewing the risks of alternative medicine specifically for cancer patients. As the indirect risks are often neglected, I will here quote the relevant section of this paper in full:
…Health care physicians and oncology experts have an ethical responsibility to initiate the communication regarding the use of complementary therapies with cancer patients. However, according to data obtained from this literature review, oncology doctors and physicians will discuss complementary therapies only when a patient him/herself raises this issue within a consultation. This passive attitude was linked to a lack of sufficient scientific evidence for positive outcomes of complementary therapies found in high quality randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Oncology nurses, on the other hand, sometimes actively promote complementary modalities that they find to correspond with their vision of holistic care.
According to the included studies, complementary providers often differ from conventional health care providers in their understanding of treatment concepts, philosophies and diagnostic procedures. This leads to different models of disease causality (cells, blood, nerves vs. energy, vital force, meridians) and treatment philosophy (reductionism vs. holism). As many complementary providers are philosophically oriented towards personal and spiritual growth, patients may feel guilty if the disease continues to advance despite the patients’ best spiritual and mental efforts. According to Broom and colleagues, such philosophies may also give patients false hope of recovery.
Another indirect risk connected to the combination of conventional and complementary treatment in cancer care is the lack of regulation and standardized education in many countries. Currently, there are, for example, no standard training requirements for complementary providers working in cancer care or any other health care setting in the EU. According to Mackareth et al., complementary providers in England need specific training to learn how to practice safely.
Moreover, there is a need for common medical terminology to bridge the communication gap between health care providers working outside the conventional health care system. Common medical terminology may reduce the existing communication gap between conventional and complementary providers about mutual patients. To minimize communication gap between physicians, oncology experts and complementary providers, a medical complementary record should include a treatment plan with conventional and complementary diagnosis, explanation of terminology, possible treatment interactions, description of the complementary treatment plan and goals. If possible, the quality of any complementary supplement given should be reported.
END OF QUOTE
As I said, I find it important to discuss the indirect risks of alternative medicine, and I am therefore pleased that the authors of this article addressed them. At the same time, I find their text remarkably tame.
Why are they not more open and forceful about what, after all, amounts to a serious public health issue? The answer might be simpler than expected: most of them are affiliated with the ‘National Research Center in Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NAFKAM), UiT The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, Norway’. Could it be that open warnings about outright quackery is not what suits this unit?
So, what might be an open and frank approach to discussing the indirect risks of alternative medicine? In my view, it should make several points abundantly clear and transparent:
- Alternative practitioners (APs) are usually not trained to advise patients responsibly, particularly in cases serious disease.
- The training of APs is often inadequate and sometimes resembles more to brain-washing than to proper education.
- Consequently, APs often woefully over-estimate what their therapy can achieve.
- The patients of APs are often desperate and ready to believe even the tallest tales.
- APs have a huge conflict of interest – in order to make a living they need to treat as many patients as possible and are therefore not motivated to refer them to more suitable care.
- APs are frequently in denial when it comes to the risks of their treatments.
- APs are not educated such that they understand the full complexities of serious illness.
- As a result, APs far too often misguide their patients to make tragically wrong choices thus putting their health at serious risk.
- In most countries, the regulators turn a blind eye to this huge problem.
These are by no means trivial points, and they have nothing to do with a ‘turf war’ between conventional and alternative medicine. They relate to our ethical duty to keep our patients as safe as we can. It has been estimated that, in oncology alone, 1 – 5% of deaths are due to patients opting to have alternative instead of conventional treatments. This amounts to an unbearably high absolute number of patients dying prematurely due to the indirect risks of alternative medicine.
It is high time, I think, that we tackle this issue systematically and seriously.
Bogus claims of alternative therapists are legion, particularly in homeopathy. But bogus claims are neither ethical nor legal. Homeopathy works for no human condition, and therefore any medical claim made for homeopathy is unethical, false, misleading and illegal.
This is not just my view (after studying the subject for more than two decades) but also that of the UK regulators. In case you doubt it, please read the full notice which the UK ‘Advertising Standards Authority’ has just published (dated 29/9/2016):
This week, our sister organisation, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Compliance team has written to homeopaths across the UK to remind them of the rules that govern what they can and can’t say in their marketing materials, including on their websites.
Homeopathy is based on the principle of treating like with like; in other words a substance which causes certain symptoms can also help remove those symptoms when it is diluted heavily in water before being consumed. Practitioners believe that this stimulates the body to heal itself. However, to date, despite having considered a body of evidence, neither us nor CAP has seen robust evidence that homeopathy works. Practitioners should therefore avoid making direct or implied claims that homeopathy can treat medical conditions.
We have no intention of restricting the ability of practitioners to advertise legitimate and legal services, nor do we seek to restrict the right of individuals to choose treatment. However, when advertisers make claims about these products or services, in all sectors, they must hold appropriate evidence to back up those claims. If they do not, then we have a responsibility to intervene to protect consumers by ensuring that those ads are amended or withdrawn.
If you are a practicing homeopath, please ensure that you carefully read CAP’s advice and guidance. It includes a non-exhaustive list of the types of claims you can and can’t make. You will then need to make changes, as necessary, to your marketing materials, including on your website, if you have one.
Further guidance can be found on the Society of Homeopaths’ website. We have worked closely with the Society over the course of the last year, to help them produce detailed guidance to support their members.
I think this notice speaks for itself. All I want to add at this stage is my hope that UK homeopaths comply asap to avoid getting penalised and – much more importantly – to avoid continuing to mislead consumers.
In a recent PJ article, Michael Marshall from the ‘Good Thinking Society’ asked “WHY ON EARTH IS THE NHS SPENDING EVEN A SINGLE PENNY ON HOMEOPATHY?”. A jolly good question, given the overwhelmingly negative evidence, I thought – but one that must be uncomfortable to homeopaths. Sure enough, a proponent of homeopathy, Jeanette Lindsay from Glasgow, has objected to Marshall’s arguments in a short comment which is a fairly typical defence of homeopathy; I therefore take the liberty of reproducing it here (the 12 references in her text were added by me and refer to my footnotes below):
I wonder if people such as Michael Marshall (The Pharmaceutical Journal 2016;297:101), who would refuse  patients the option of NHS homeopathic treatment, have considered the plight of people failed by evidence-based medicine ?  Where are those with chronic, disabling conditions to turn when the medicines available on the NHS do not work, or worse, are positively harmful? 
Take the instance of a woman with multiple drug allergies who has no means of treating her severe inflammatory arthritis and no suitable analgesia.  It has been demonstrated that disease states with immune system involvement are particularly susceptible to the placebo effect but how does one induce this? Current thinking precludes treatment with placebo medicines but it so happens that homeopathic remedies would appear, from the results of clinical trials , to be a good substitute.  Used properly, there is a good chance that in this case homeopathic treatment may achieve a real therapeutic effect. 
Patients who cannot tolerate allopathic  treatment do not just go away because they cannot take the prescribed medicine.  They suffer and surely deserve a better range of options  than those provided by the current obsession with evidence-based medicine.  The availability of homeopathic treatment is important and should not be denied until better alternatives become commonplace.  Michael Marshall does not ‘refuse’ homeopathy on the NHS; that is not in his power. He merely questions whether NHS funds should not be spent on treatments that demonstrably do more good than harm.  I am sure he as carefully considered such patients.  Depending on the exact circumstances, such patients have many options: for instance, they could change their physician, have their diagnosis re-considered, or try a non-drug treatment.  An allergy to one drug is rarely (I would even say never) associated with allergies to all drugs for any given condition. Even if this were the case, there are several non-drug treatments for arthritis or other diseases.  I think this is fantasy; there is no good evidence from clinical trials to show that homeopathy is efficacious for either inflammatory or degenerative arthritis.  Is this an admission that homeopathic remedies are placebos?  I am not aware of sound evidence to support this statement.  ‘Allopathic’ is a derogatory term introduced by Hahnemann to defame conventional medicine.  I have never seen a patient who could not tolerate any prescription medicine. I suspect this is fantasy again.  Patients deserve the optimal therapy available for their conditions – that is a therapy that demonstrably generates more good than harm. Homeopathy is clearly not in this category.  An obsession? Yes, perhaps it is an obsession for some dedicated healthcare professionals to provide the best possible treatments for their patients. But the way it is put here, it sounds as though this was something despicable. I would argue that such an ‘obsession’ would be most commendable.  For practically all conditions, symptoms, illesses and diseases that afflict mankind, better alternatives than homeopathy have been available since about 150 years.
It seems to me that Jeanette Lindsay has been harshly disappointed by conventional medicine. Perhaps this is why, one day, she consulted a homeopath and received the empathy, understanding and compassion that she needed to get better. Many homeopaths excel at these qualities; and this is the main reason why their patients swear by them, even though their remedies are pure placebos.
My advice to such patients is: find a physician who has time, empathy and compassion. They do exist! Once you have found such a doctor, you can benefit from the compassion and empathy just as you may have benefitted from the homeopath’s compassion and empathy. But in addition to these benefits (and contrary to what you got from your homeopath), you will also be able to profit from the efficacy of the treatments prescribed.
To put it simply: homeopaths can help patients via non-specific therapeutic effects; responsible physicians can help patients via non-specific therapeutic effects plus the specific effects of the treatments they prescribe.