Alternative medicine differs from conventional medicine in numerous ways. One important difference is that patients often opt to try this or that product without consulting any healthcare professional at all. In such cases, the pharmacist might be the ONLY professional who can advise the patient who is about to purchase such a product.
This is why the role of the pharmacist in alternative medicine is crucial, arguably more so than in conventional medicine. And this is why I am banging on about pharmacists who far too often behave like shop-keepers and not like ethical healthcare professionals. A new review addresses these issues and provides relevant information.
Pharmacists from the University of Macau in Macau, China conducted a literature review to extract publications from 2000 to 2015 that related pharmacist to alternative medicine products. 41 publications which reported findings from exploratory studies or discussed pharmacists’ responsibilities towards such products were selected for inclusion.
Seven major responsibilities emerged:
- to acknowledge the use of alternative medicine products;
- to be knowledgeable about such products;
- to ensure safe use of such products;
- to document the use of such products;
- to report ADRs related to such products;
- to educate about such products;
- to collaborate with other health care professionals in respect to such products.
One point that is not directly covered here is the duty of pharmacists to comply with their own ethical codes. As I have pointed out ad nauseam, this would mean in many instances to not sell alternative medicine products at all, because there is no good evidence to show that they are generating more good than harm and thus are potentially harmful as well as wasteful.
Some pharmacists have realised that there is a problem. Some pharmacists are trying to initiate discussions about these issues within their profession. Some pharmacists are urging to change things. Some pharmacists are well-aware that healthcare ethics are being violated on a daily basis.
All this has been going on now for well over a decade.
And has there been any noticeable change?
Not as far as I can see!
Perhaps it is time to realise that not merely the sale of bogus medicines by pharmacists is unethical, but so is dragging one’s feet in initiating improvements.
David Needleman, a pharmacist at Wilkinson Chemist in Barnet, UK, has published a brilliant article explaining that complementary medicine such as homeopathy, nutrition and aromatherapy could make smaller pharmacies “more viable and competitive”, as they look to “survive” the funding cuts across England. In doing so, he made it clear that retail pharmacists are shop-keepers, not healthcare professionals, as previously assumed.
“We need to explore other ways of maintaining profitability. One of these is to enter profitable niche markets”. Mr Needleman – who is also joint principal of The School of Complementary Medicine (TSOCM) – helped set up a homeopathic dispensary in a North London pharmacy while studying for his qualification in 1987. “Within a year, the various homeopathic remedies, various other nutritional supplements and herbal medicines we stocked accounted for nearly 40% of the pharmacy’s turnover, with a considerably higher margin. This 40% turnover was the difference between bankruptcy and survival [of this pharmacy],” he added.
Mr Needleman and his colleague at TSOCM have designed a two-year “comprehensive complementary medicines” course for pharmacists and technicians, which will launch at the London School of Pharmacy in September. “It is going to cover nutrition, homeopathy, herbal medicine, flower remedies, aromatherapy and Chinese medicines and will lead to a [certificate] for pharmacists to become registered with a professional body,” Mr Needleman said. He said “it is early days” but “everyone I have spoken to has shown an interest” in the training. Mr Needleman is now looking to expand the offer to pharmacists across the country, “possibly Manchester next”.
Mr Needleman said he reacted with “sadness” to the news that some clinical commissioning groups (CCG) plan to scrap homeopathy funding. “Homeopathy has been under a lot of threat and a lot of pressure for some considerable time. It is going to disenfranchise thousands of people who can’t afford to pay. When you think that between six and 10 million people a year use complementary medicines…it is rather a large chunk of business that pharmacies are missing out on. There are only about six dedicated homeopathic pharmacies in the country, but there are a number of pharmacies that will dispense remedies and give advice. Anything that can take us away from NHS dispensing has got to be useful for the survival of community pharmacy,” he added. A full copy of Mr Needleman’s letter can be found here.
I want to personally thank Mr Needleman for this statement. It avoids all the BS pharmacists tend to unpack when asked about homeopathy or other bogus treatments they sell. I agree entirely with Needleman, no need to beat about the bush! Pharmacists who sell homeopathic remedies do so mostly to make money, they are essentially shop-keepers. I find it easier to deal with the truth – even though it may be slightly embarrassing for the profession of pharmacists – than with the excuses pharmacists usually provide when asked why they sell disproven nonsense to the unsuspecting public. I guess, I prefer a slight embarrassment to a painfully big one.
The downside of the behaviour of the shop-keepers in the pharmacist profession is, of course, that they violate their own code of ethics. But who cares about ethics? Who cares about responsibly advising patients on the best therapy for their conditions? Who cares about evidence? The aim of the game is not about niceties, it is about saving the pharmacists’ income!!!
In its ‘quick guide’ to homeopathy, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) said it “does not endorse homeopathy as a form of treatment because there is no scientific basis for homeopathy nor any evidence to support the clinical efficacy of homeopathic products beyond a placebo effect”.
The notorious tendency of pharmacist to behave like shop-keepers when it comes to the sale of bogus remedies has been the subject of this blog many times before. In my view, this is an important subject, and I will therefore continue to report about it.
On the website of the AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF PHARMACY (AJP), we find interesting new data on Australian pharmacists’ love affair with bogus alternative medicine. The AJP recently ran a poll asking readers: “Do you stock Complementary Medicines (CMs) in your pharmacy?” The results of this little survey so far show that 54% of all participating pharmacists say they stock CMs, including homeopathic products. About a quarter (28%) of respondents stock CMs but not homeopathic products. And 9% said they “only stock evidence-based CMs”. Three percent completely refuse to stock CMs, while 2% stock them but with clear in-store labels saying that they may not work. One person stated they stock CMs but have recently decided to no longer do so.
The President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) Joe Demarte commented on these findings: “The latest survey results, showing over 40% of pharmacists are adhering to PSA’s Code of Ethics on complementary medicines, are very encouraging… However it’s disappointing that some pharmacists are still stocking homeopathy products, which are not supported by PSA’s Code of Ethics or our Position Statement on Complementary Medicines… Irrespective of the products stocked in a pharmacy, the important thing is when discussing the use of complementary medicines with consumers, pharmacists must ensure that consumers are provided with the best available information about the current evidence for efficacy, as well as information on any potential side effects, drug interactions and risks of harm… It’s important for pharmacists to provide a fair, honest and balanced view of the current evidence available on all complementary medicines,” Demarte added.
NSW pharmacist Ian Carr, who is a member of the Friends of Science in Medicine group, commented that many pharmacists may not have much choice when it comes to stocking complementary and alternative medicines. “CMs policy is not being filtered through the professional assessment of the pharmacist… It’s basically a business deal with the franchise, and as a pharmacist taking on a franchise you’ve basically got to sign those rights away about what you get to sell. Some of the chains offer basically everything that is available, no questions asked. As an independent pharmacist I am able to make my own decisions about what to stock… We’ve got a ‘de-facto’ corporatisation happening with marketing groups and franchises, and I’m concerned the government will look at this trend and ask, why are we not deregulating the industry to reflect the apparent reality of pharmacy today? We’re only playing into the hands of people who want deregulation… We should be telling people in no uncertain terms that if something is on the shelf it doesn’t mean it’s been assessed or approved by the TGA… There is no doubt that there has been a long-term relationship between the supplement industry and pharmacy. But it was also a few decades ago that researchers started applying the concept of evidence-based medicine to healthcare generally. That should have been the point where we said, ‘we’re not just going to be a conduit for your products without questioning their basis in evidence’. That’s where we lost the plot. The question now is: where do we draw that line? I’m really trying to say to my fellow pharmacists: Please let us reassess the unquestioning support of the CM industry, or we’ll all be tarred with the same brush. I and many others are concerned about – and fighting for – the reputation of the pharmacy profession.”
A BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine survey by researchers from Alfred Hospital in Melbourne found that 92% thought pharmacists should provide safety information about CMs, while 93% thought it important for pharmacists to be knowledgeable about CMs. This shows a huge divide between what is happening in Australian pharmacy on the one side and ethical demands or public opinion on the other side. What is more, there is little reason to believe that the situation in other countries is fundamentally different.
And did you notice this little gem in the comments above? “…over 40% of pharmacists are adhering to PSA’s Code of Ethics…” – the PSA president finds this ‘VERY ENCOURAGING’.
When I saw this, I almost fell off my chair!
Does the president know that this means that 60% of his members are violating their own code of ethics?
Is that truly VERY ENCOURAGING, I ask myself.
My answer is no, this is VERY WORRYING.
A recent article in the Guardian revealed that about one third of Australian pharmacists are recommending alternative medicines with little-to-no evidence for their efficacy, including useless homeopathic products and potentially harmful herbal products.
For this survey of 240 Australian pharmacies, mystery shoppers were sent in to speak to a pharmacist at the prescription dispensing counter and ask for advice about feeling stressed. The results show that three per cent of the pharmacists recommended homeopathic products, despite a comprehensive review of all existing studies on homeopathy finding that there is no evidence they work in treating any condition and that ‘people who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments’. Twenty-six percent of all pharmacists recommended Bach flower remedies to relieve stress. A comprehensive review of all existing studies on Bach flower remedies found no difference between the remedies and placebos. Fifty-nine per cent of people were just told the complementary and alternative product recommended to them worked, and 24% were told the product was scientifically proven, without any evidence being provided to them.
Asked about these findings, Dr Ken Harvey, a prominent Australian expert, said they demonstrated that some pharmacists were failing in their professional duty to consumers. “Pharmacists are giving crazy advice, and it is dangerous in some cases,” he said. “My view is that pharmacists, if they are going to sell these products, need to have a big shining sign over the shelves of the complementary and alternative medicine section that says ‘these products have not been assessed by the government regulators to see if they work, please talk to pharmacist’.Pharamacists are giving poor advice and they clearly have a conflict of interest,” Harvey said.
If you had hoped that in other countries pharmacists behave more responsibly, I must disappoint you. The information available shows that, when it comes to alternative medicine, pharmacists across the globe act much more like shop-keepers than like health care professionals. They are in the habit of putting profit before their duty to abide by the rules of evidence-based practice. And, in doing do, they violate their own ethical codes so regularly that I ask myself why they bothered to even implement one.
On this blog I have written so often about this issue that one could come to the conclusion that I have a bee under my bonnet:
- Pharmacists: to sell quackery means you are quacks – or have I got that wrong?
- Pharmacists must use their professional judgement to prevent the supply of homeopathic remedies
- A pharmacist’s defence of homeopathy
- When will pharmacists finally stop selling homeopathic remedies?
- The homeopathic emergency kit: it must be good, it’s recommended by pharmacists
- Why do pharmacists sell bogus medicines?
- Pharmacists should finally get their act together…or lose credibility
The truth, however, is not that I am the victim of a bee.
The truth is that this is a very important public health issue.
The truth is that pharmacists show little signs of even trying to get to grips with it.
The truth is that pharmacists who sell bogus medicines put profit before professional ethics.
The truth is that such behaviour is not that of health care professionals but that of shop-keepers.
The truth is that I intend to carry on reminding these pharmacists that they are behaving like charlatans.
Some homeopaths advise parents not to vaccinate their kids and use homeopathic vaccinations or ‘homeo-prophylaxis’ instead. Despite the fact that it has long been clear that this approach is not effective and even dangerous, some homeopathic pharmacies have been selling the remedies used for that purpose. In the UK, Helios has been at the forefront of this dubious trade. But, a few days ago, they have changed their ways.
Here is a screenshot of the results of a search for the word ‘vaccine’, with the ‘remedies’ that were subsequently removed highlighted:
Click the image to enlarge.
This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. The question I ask myself is WHY DID HELIOS MAKE THIS CHANGE? Was it because they had to? Or was it because they saw the light and realised that the evidence did not support the remedies in question?
If it was the latter motivation, we will soon know – because, in that case, they will surely do the same with the entire rest of their remedies.
BECAUSE THERE IS NOT GOOD EVIDENCE THAT ANY HIGHLY DILUTED HOMEOPATHIC REMEDY IS MORE THAN A PLACEBO.
It has been reported that ‘Boots the Chemist’ have filed several legal complaints against The Guardian in relation to articles published by the paper in relation to its April 2016 investigation. The Guardian articles in question alleged that Boots, the UK’s largest pharmacy chain, had placed undue pressure on its pharmacists to perform medicines use reviews so that it could claim the maximum payments possible from the NHS. In other words, The Guardian implied that Boots was trying to get more money from our NHS than might have been due.
Personally, I am always uneasy when I hear that someone takes legal action on such matters. I think that legal complaints of such a nature can turn out to be counter-productive, both in general and in this particular instance.
There could be several reasons. For instance, such actions might give someone the idea of filing complaints against Boots. I am sure it is not difficult to find reasons for that.
In the realm of alternative medicine, for example, someone might question whether selling homeopathic remedies in Boot’s section ‘pharmacy and health’ is not misleading. These remedies might be seen by a naïve customer as masquerading as medicines. As readers of this blog know all too well, they do not, in fact, contain anything (other than lactose) that has any pharmacological activity. Therefore Boots should best market them in the category of ‘confectionary’.
One might even suspect that Boots are fully aware of all this. After all, a spokesperson for the company stated years ago during a parliamentary inquiry: “I have no evidence to suggest that they [homeopathic remedies sold by Boots] are efficacious …”
And it is also not the first time that Boots have been challenged for selling products they know to be placebos. This is what The Guardian reported in 2008 about the issue: “Ernst accuses the company [Boots] of breaching ethical guidelines drawn up by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, by failing to tell customers that its homeopathic medicines contain no active ingredients and are ineffective in clinical trials.”
A similar void of evidence also applies to Boot’s wide range of Bach Flower Remedies and aromatherapy oils.
Or am I wrong?
Perhaps Boots want to post links to the evidence in the comment section below?
I am always keen to learn and only too happy to change my mind in view of new, compelling evidence!
Boots also sell a very wide range of herbal medicines, and here the situation is quite different: herbal medicines actually contain molecules that might have pharmacological effects, i. e. they might heal or might harm you. And many of these products imply indications for which they should be taken. I will pick just one example to explain: HERBAL SLIM AID.
Yes, you are absolutely correct – this product is (according to its name) not for gaining weight, it’s for reducing it. Each coated tablet contains 45 mg of extract (as dry extract) from Bladderwrack thallus (Fucus vesiculosus L.) (5:1) (equivalent to 225 mg of Fucus) Extraction solvent: water, ,30 mg Dandelion Root (Taraxacum officinale Weber ex Wigg), 27 mg of extract (as dry extract) from Boldo leaf (Peumus boldus Molina) (4-6:1) (equivalent to 108-162 mg of Boldo leaf) Extraction solvent: Methanol 70% v/v, 10 mg Butternut Bark (Juglans cinerea L.).
Now, I thought I know quite a bit about herbal slimming aids, after all, we had a research focus on this topic for several years and have published about a dozen papers on the subject. But oddly, I cannot remember that this mixture of herbs has been shown to reduce body weight.
Perhaps Boots want to post evidence for the efficacy and safety of this product as well?
I certainly hope so, and I would instantly withdraw any hint of a suspicion that Boots are selling unproven or disproven medicines.
Where is all this going?
I have to admit that am not entirely sure myself.
I suppose all I wanted to express was that it might be unwise to throw stones when one is sitting in a glass-house – a cliché, I know, but it’s true nevertheless.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST:
None [except I don’t like those who easily take legal action against others]
The question whether pharmacists should sell unproven alternative medicines will not go away. On this blog, we have discussed it repeatedly, for instance here, here and here. The Australian Journal of Pharmacy’s latest poll shows that readers have their suspicions about the validity of naturopathic medicines, with a whopping 544 voters choosing the option, “No, there’s no evidence they work” at the time of writing.
This constitutes 65% of readers who took part in the poll. A significant minority – 193 readers, with 23% of the vote – said that pharmacies should stock these medicines as they are legitimate products. Five per cent said that while they questioned their efficacy, pharmacy should stock them; and 3% said they were unsure, but the public wanted them.
Taree pharmacist and member of Friends in Science and Medicine Ian Carr, who has spoken to the AJP several times in the last couple of weeks as debate has continued about the subject of naturopathy in pharmacy, said he was surprised and pleased at the strength of the No vote. “I looked at [the poll] on the first day, and there was definitely a majority saying these things have no evidence, but there was still above 30% saying yes, they were legitimate products,” Carr told the AJP. “That’s been dwarfed by a lot of people who’ve looked in, and it’s interesting to have that many people vote. “I’m glad that it seems to be becoming recognised that there’s a need for the evidence base in these things, and the difference between having a naturopathic product or supplement on the shelf, and having somebody there charging for their time, as a naturopath, dispensing advice without knowing the patient’s background and without an intervention by a registered pharmacist.” He encouraged pharmacists concerned about the validity of naturopathy to consider what products and services they offer.
Where naturopaths are used, they should at least be expected to keep a record of products and advice dispensed, he says, similar to protocols around blood pressure and blood glucose monitoring. “If there’s going to be an insistence that naturopaths remain, that’s the way I’d like to see it: that the pharmacy has good records and oversight of what they’re doing. I think, given our connection to the PBS and the fact that we as pharmacists are looking for a more serious role as part of the health care team generally, and having a more active and integrative role, we would be silly to fritter it away on peripheries like naturopathy. I personally see the opportunities in evidence-based medicine and what flows from that, rather than trying to make up dollars. We’re more likely to lose control of pharmacy if we don’t guard it jealousy.”
One of the suppliers of CAM products to pharmacies responded to the article by stating the following:
“The complementary and alternative medicine (CAMs) sector and its role in healthcare management continues to be hotly debated by the media. Rather than dissuade this debate, we actively encourage this discussion, as it shines a light on many issues which need to be addressed. Of priority is the point that not all complementary and alternative medicine products are equal. As in many media articles, an incredibly wide spectrum of products are grouped under the label of ‘CAMs’. Products with specific clinical evidence, high-quality manufacturing processes and transparency on the sourcing of ingredients are not clearly identified from products without these qualities. Consumers and healthcare professionals are unable to distinguish this difference due to a lack of clear labelling. We agree with calls for CAMs products to be more thoroughly assessed, beyond being simply classified as ‘safe’. Healthcare professionals and consumers deserve this information and are indeed asking for it. Consumers are aware of the impact of their choices and that their demand drives industry change. History is littered with recent examples where consumer awareness has changed the marketplace for the better. Consumer-driven change in the CAMs industry IS possible, it just needs to be supported. The Australian CAMs industry needs to increase healthcare professional and consumer education on the importance of evidence-based CAM products; on what ‘evidence-based’ means and what this difference delivers… Healthcare professionals are key to helping their patients understand that not all CAMs or natural medicine products are equal… It takes time to change the way people see CAMs and natural medicines – but it is of inherent value for the consumer. Something, we believe, is integral to the future of the industry.”
The arguments are clearest, if we focus on a specific type of alternative medicine and spell out what precisely we are talking about. The one that comes to mind is, of course, homeopathy. In my view, there is no good reason why pharmacists should sell homeopathic remedies. It is comforting to know that the Chief Scientist of the UK Royal Pharmaceutical Society, Professor Jayne Lawrence, agrees; she stated about a year ago that “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.”
And what has changed since?
Nothing, as far as I can see – but please correct me, if I am wrong.
I think it is important that we remind the community pharmacists everywhere that they have their very own codes of ethics and that they need to adhere to them. If they don’t, they tacitly agree that they are not really healthcare professionals but mere shop-keepers.
A nice way to conclude this year’s ‘homeopathy awareness week’, I think, is to review some of the more important homeopathy-related events from across the world that have been reported (on this blog) in the past 12 months.
- A few weeks ago, it was reported that a master’s degree in homeopathic medicine at one of Spain’s top universities has been scrapped. Remarkably, the reason was “lack of scientific basis”. A university spokesman confirmed the course was being discontinued and gave three main reasons: “Firstly, the university’s Faculty of Medicine recommended scrapping the master’s because of the doubt that exists in the scientific community. Secondly, a lot of people within the university – professors and students across different faculties – had shown their opposition to the course. Thirdly, the postgraduate degree in homeopathic medicine is no longer approved by Spain’s Health Ministry.”
- On January 30, a group of experts from all walks of life met in Freiburg to discuss ways of informing the public responsibly and countering the plethora of misinformation that Germans are regularly exposed to on the subject of homeopathy. They founded the ‘Information Network Homeopathy‘ and decided on a range of actions.
- Earlier that month, the Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan called homeopathy ‘bogus’. “They (homeopaths) take arsenic compounds and dilute it to such an extent that just a molecule is left. It will not make any effect on you. Your tap water has more arsenic. No one in chemistry believes in homeopathy. It works because of placebo effect,” he was quoted saying.
- We have confirmed that Dana Ulman (the ‘spokesman’ for homeopathy in the US) fails to understand science or medicine. He excels in producing one fallacy after the next. If he were on a mission to give homeopathy a bad name, he would be doing a sterling job!
- I identified Prof Frass as one of the most magical of all homeopathy researchers: he never fails to produce a positive result with his placebos.
- In an interview, Christian Boiron, the general manager of the world’s largest producer of homeopathics, carried the debate about homeopathy to a new level of stupidity. He pointed out that “Il y a un Ku Klux Klan contre l’homéopathie” My translation: THERE IS A KU KLUX KLAN AGAINST HOMEOPATHY.
- In a similar vein, Dr Michael Dixon, advisor to Prince Charles, defended homeopathy by stating that omitting it from the NHS “would be a mean-minded act of outside interference by many who do not treat patients themselves, denying patient choice and signifying a new age of intolerance and interference. It is a threat to the autonomy of general practice that should concern every GP and patient whatever their views on homeopathy.”
- The Hungarian Academy of Sciences statement proposing the same scientific standards for homeopathic drug registration as for normal drugs Members of the Section of Medical Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) voted unanimously on 9 November 2015 for supporting the earlier proposal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Swedish statement requested that the homeopathic remedies should go through the same efficacy trials as normal drugs should.
- The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that they are considering whether advertisements for homeopathic products have any evidence to back the numerous claims that are being made for them. A meeting took place on 21 September, and the first details have emerged.
- A legal challenge in the UK failed to produce the results homeopaths had hoped for. Honor Watt, 73 had sued Lothian Health Board after the authority stopped in June 2013 to provide homeopathic treatments to patients. Ms Watt’s lawyers decided to challenge the board’s decision in the Court of Session claiming the health board acted illegally. There is reason to believe that Ms Watt was assisted by a professional organisation of homeopathy ( the judgement mentions that the Board’s submission stated that ‘the real force behind the petition was a charity, not the petitioner’). The case went to court and the judge, Lord Uist, ruled that the health board had acted legally. He therefore refused to overturn the board’s original decision. In a written judgement issued on Friday, Lord Uist confirmed that the health board acted correctly: “It is clear to me from an examination of the relevant documents that the board was from the outset consciously focusing on its PSED.”
- The first International Conference on Homeoprophylaxis announce its guest speaker: ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield.
- The Royal Pharmacy Society’s Chief Scientist Professor Jayne Lawrence has blogged on the history of homeopathy and asked why, even in the face of the lack of evidence, people are still actively seeking homeopathic treatment today. Jayne layed 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…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.”
- And finally, there is this impressive graph (published not by me but) by the formidable Nightingale Collaboration. It speaks for itself, I think:
NO, ONE CANNOT SAY THAT IT WAS A GOOD YEAR FOR HOMEOPATHY – BUT, PLEASE, LET THAT NOT SPOIL YOUR CELEBRATORY MOOD.
An article in the Australian Journal of Pharmacy seems well worth mentioning on this blog. It throws some light on what is happening in Australia regarding an issue that I have repeatedly written about: the sale of homeopathic remedies by pharmacists.
Pharmaceutical Society of Australia have apparently published a ‘Complementary Medicines Position Paper’ which states that complementary medicines may be used as an adjunctive therapy with conventional medicines, provided there is evidence to support their use. The president of the PSA, Joe Demarte, says that the PSA is committed to supporting pharmacists help consumers make informed decisions regarding complementary medicines and continued to advocate strongly for a partnership approach with consumers to promote the Quality Use of Medicines and responsible self-medication. “This is a partnership between the pharmacist and the consumer where the pharmacist as the medicines expert can advise on the appropriate use of complementary medicines the consumer may be considering,” Demarte is quoted saying. He continues: “There is a wealth of information available about complementary medicines which can be confusing and the pharmacist can assist in ensuring that consumers are provided with the best available information about the current evidence for efficacy, as well as information on any potential side effects, drug interactions and risks of harm. In the event that a consumer chooses to use a product with limited evidence, the pharmacist must advise the consumer on the risks of rejecting or delaying treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. PSA strongly encourages all consumers considering taking complementary medicines to first consult their pharmacist for sound, evidence-based advice.”
So far so good – but what about disproven treatments such as homeopathy, I wonder.
Demarte says the PSA endorses the NHMRC report, released in March 2015, which found there were no health conditions for which there was reliable evidence that homeopathy was effective. And he states that the PSA does not support the sale of homeopathy products in pharmacies: “Our position is that pharmacists must use their professional judgement to prevent the supply of products with evidence of no effect.”
This surely is good news for all who stand up for evidence-based medicine and foremost for patients. It comes only a few months after the RPS Chief Scientist of the UK Royal Pharmaceutical Society, Professor Jayne Lawrence stated very similar things: “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.”
Now that we are (almost) all in perfect agreement, we only need one thing: adequate action by pharmacists!
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.