Lots of people are puzzled how healthcare professionals – some with sound medical training – can become convinced homeopaths. Having done part of this journey myself, I think I know one possible answer to this question. So, let me try to explain it to you in the form of a ‘story’ of a young doctor who goes through this development. As you may have guessed, some elements of this story are autobiographical but others are entirely fictional.
Here is the story:
After he had finished medical school, our young and enthusiastic doctor wanted nothing more than to help and assist needy patients. A chain of coincidences made him take a post in a homeopathic hospital where he worked as a junior clinician alongside 10 experienced homeopaths. What he saw impressed him: despite of what he had learnt at med school, homeopathy seemed to work quite well: patients with all sorts of symptoms improved. This was not his or anybody else’s imagination, it was an undeniable fact.
As his confidence and his ability to think clearly grew, the young physician began to wonder nevertheless: were his patients’ improvements really due to the homeopathic remedies, or were these outcomes caused by the kind and compassionate care he and the other staff provided?
To cut a long story short, when he left the hospital to establish his own practice, he certainly knew how to prescribe homeopathics but he was not what one might call a convinced homeopath. He decided to employ homeopathy in parallel with conventional medicine and it turned out that he made less and less use of homeopathy as the months went by.
One day, a young women consulted him; she had been unsuccessfully trying to have a baby for two years and was now getting very frustrated, even depressed, with her childlessness. All tests on her and her husband had not revealed any abnormalities. A friend had told her that homeopathy might help, and see had therefore made this appointment to consult a doctor who had trained as a homeopath.
Our young physician was not convinced that he could help his patient but, in the end, he was persuaded to give it a try. As he had been taught by his fellow homeopaths, he conducted a full homeopathic history to find the optimal remedy for his patient, gave her an individualised prescription and explained that any effect might take a while. The patient was delighted that someone had given her so much time, felt well-cared for by her homeopaths, and seemed full of optimism.
Months passed and she returned for several further consultations. But sadly she failed to become pregnant. About a year later, when everyone involved had all but given up hope, her periods stopped and the test confirmed: she was expecting!
Everyone was surprised, not least our doctor. This outcome, he reasoned, could not possibly be due to placebo, or the good therapeutic relationship he had been able to establish with his patient. Perhaps it was just a coincidence?
In the small town where they lived, news spread quickly that he was able to treat infertility with homeopathy. Several other women with the same problem liked the idea of having an effective yet risk-free therapy for their infertility problem. The doctor thus treated several infertile women, about 10, during the next months. Amazingly most of them got pregnant within a year or so. The doctor was baffled, such a series of pregnancies could not be a coincidence, he reasoned.
Naturally, the cases that were talked about were the women who had become pregnant. And naturally, these were the patients our doctor liked to remember. Slowly he became convinced that he was indeed able to treat infertility homeopathically – so much so that he published a case series in a homeopathic journal about his successes.
In a way, he had hoped that, perhaps, someone would challenge him and explain where he had gone wrong. But the article was greeted nationally with much applause by his fellow homeopaths, and he was even invited to speak at several conferences. In short, within a few years, he made himself a name for his ability to help infertile women.
Patients now travelled from across the country to see him, and some even came from abroad. Our physician had become a minor celebrity in the realm of homeopathy. He also, one has to admit, had started to make very good money; most of his patients were private patients. Life was good. It almost goes without saying that all his former doubts about the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies gradually vanished into thin air.
Whenever now someone challenged his findings with arguments like ‘homeopathics are just placebos’, he surprised himself by getting quite angry. How do they dare doubt my data, he thought. The babies are there, to deny their existence means calling me a liar!
OUR DOCTOR HAD BECOME AN EVANGELICALLY CONVINCED HOMEOPATH, AND NO RATIONAL ARGUMENT COULD DISSUADE HIM.
And what arguments might that be? Isn’t he entirely correct? Can dozens of pregnancies be the result of a placebo effect, the therapeutic relationship or coincidence?
The answer is NO! The babies are real, very real.
But there are other, even simpler and much more plausible explanations for our doctor’s apparent success rate: otherwise healthy women who don’t get pregnant within months of trying do very often succeed eventually, even without any treatment whatsoever. Our doctor struck lucky when this happened a few times after the first patient had consulted him. Had he prescribed non-homeopathic placebos, his success rate would have been exactly the same.
As a clinician, it is all too easy and extremely tempting not to adequately rationalise such ‘success’. If the ‘success’ then happens repeatedly, one can be in danger of becoming deluded, and then one almost automatically ‘forgets’ one’s failures. Over time, this confirmation bias will create an entirely false impression and often even a deeply felt conviction.
I am sure that this sort of thing happens often, very often. And it happens not just to homeopaths. It happens to all types of quacks. And, I am afraid, it also happens to many conventional doctors.
This is how ineffective treatments survive for often very long periods. This is how blood-letting survived for centuries. This is how millions of patients get harmed following the advice of their trusted physicians to employ a useless or even dangerous therapy.
HOW CAN THIS SORT OF THING BE STOPPED?
The answer to this most important question is very simple: health care professionals need to systematically learn critical thinking early on in their education. The answer may be simple but its realisation is unfortunately not.
Even today, courses in critical thinking are rarely part of the medical curriculum. In my view, they would be as important as anatomy, physiology or any of the other core subjects in medicine.