Recently, I was invited to give a lecture about homeopathy for a large gathering of general practitioners (GPs). In the coffee break after my talk, I found myself chatting to a very friendly GP who explained: “I entirely agree with you that homeopathic remedies are pure placebos, but I nevertheless prescribe them regularly.” “Why would anyone do that?” I asked him. His answer was as frank as it was revealing.
Some of his patients, he explained, have symptoms for which he has tried every treatment possible without success. They typically have already seen every specialist in the book but none could help either. Alternatively they are patients who have nothing wrong with them but regularly consult him for trivial or self-limiting problems.
In either case, the patients come with the expectation of getting a prescription for some sort of medicine. The GP knows that it would be a hassle and most likely a waste of time to try and dissuade them. His waiting room is full, and he is facing the following choice:
- to spend valuable 15 minutes or so explaining why he should not prescribe any medication at all, or
- to write a prescription for a homeopathic placebo and get the consultation over with in two minutes.
Option number 1 would render the patient unhappy or even angry, and chances are that she would promptly see some irresponsible charlatan who puts her ‘through the mill’ at great expense and considerable risk. Option number 2 would free the GP quickly to help those patients who can be helped, make the patient happy, preserve a good therapeutic relationship between GP and the patient, save the GP’s nerves, let the patient benefit from a potentially powerful placebo-effect, and be furthermore safe as well as cheap.
I was not going to be beaten that easily though. “Basically” I told him “you are using homeopathy to quickly get rid of ‘heart sink’ patients!”
“And you find this alright?”
“No, but do you know a better solution?”
I explained that, by behaving in this way, the GP degrades himself to the level of a charlatan. “No”, he said “I am saving my patients from the many really dangerous charlatans that are out there.”
I explained that some of these patients might suffer from a serious condition which he had been able to diagnose. He countered that this has so far never happened because he is a well-trained and thorough physician.
I explained that his actions are ethically questionable. He laughed and said that, in his view, it was much more ethical to use his time and skills to the best advantage of those who truly need them. In his view, the more important ethical issue over-rides the relatively minor one.
I explained that, by implying that homeopathy is an effective treatment, he is perpetuating a myth which stands in the way of progress. He laughed again and answered that his foremost duty as a GP is not to generate progress on a theoretical level but to provide practical help for the maximum number of patients.
I explained that there cannot be many patients for whom no treatment existed that would be more helpful than a placebo, even if it only worked symptomatically. He looked at me with a pitiful smile and said my remark merely shows how long I am out of clinical medicine.
I explained that doctors as well as patients have to stop that awfully counter-productive culture of relying on prescriptions or ‘magic bullets’ for every ill. We must all learn that, in many cases, it is better to do nothing or rely on life-style changes; and we must get that message across to the public. He agreed, at least partly, but claimed this would require more that the 10 minutes he is allowed for each patient.
I explained….. well, actually, at this point, I had run out of arguments and was quite pleased when someone else started talking to me and this conversation had thus been terminated.
Since that day, I am wondering what other arguments exist. I would be delighted, if my readers could help me out.