I stared my Exeter post in October 1993. It took the best part of a year to set up a research team, find rooms etc. So, our research began in earnest only mid 1994. From the very outset, it was clear to me that investigating the risks of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) should be our priority. The reason, I felt, was simple: SCAM was being used a million times every day; therefore it was an ethical imperative to check whether these treatments were as really safe as most people seemed to believe.

In the course of this line of investigation, we did discover many surprises (and lost many friends). One of the very first revelation was that homeopathy might not be harmless. Our initial results on this topic were published in this 1995 article. In view of the still ongoing debate about homeopathy, I’d like to re-publish the short paper here:

Homoeopathic remedies are believed by doctors and patients to be almost totally safe. Is homoeopathic advice safe, for example on the subject of immunization? In order to answer this question, a questionnaire survey was undertaken in 1995 of all 45 homoeopaths listed in the Exeter ‘yellow pages’ business directory. A total of 23 replies (51%) were received, 10 from medically qualified and 13 from non-medically qualified homoeopaths.

The homoeopaths were asked to suggest which conditions they perceived as being most responsive to homoeopathy. The three most frequently cited conditions were allergies (suggested by 10 respondents), gynaecological problems (seven) and bowel problems (five).

They were then asked to estimate the proportion of patients that were referred to them by orthodox doctors and the proportion that they referred to orthodox doctors. The mean estimated percentages were 1 % and 8%, respectively. The 23 respondents estimated that they spent a mean of 73 minutes on the first consultation.

The homoeopaths were asked whether they used or recommended orthodox immunization for children and whether they only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization. Seven of the 10 homoeopaths who were medically qualified recommended orthodox immunization but none of the 13 non-medically qualified homoeopaths did. One non-medically qualified homoeopath only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization.

Homoeopaths have been reported as being against orthodox immunization’ and advocating homoeopathic immunization for which no evidence of effectiveness exists. As yet there has been no attempt in the United Kingdom to monitor homoeopaths’ attitudes in this respect. The above findings imply that there may be a problem. The British homoeopathic doctors’ organization (the Faculty of Homoeopathy) has distanced itself from the polemic of other homoeopaths against orthodox immunization, and editorials in the British Homoeopathic Journal call the abandonment of mass immunization ‘criminally irresponsible’ and ‘most unfortunate, in that it will be seen by most people as irresponsible and poorly based’.’

Homoeopathic remedies may be safe, but do all homoeopaths merit this attribute?

This tiny and seemingly insignificant piece of research triggered debate and research (my group must have published well over 100 papers in the years that followed) that continue to the present day. The debate has spread to many other countries and now involves numerous forms of SCAM other than just homeopathy. It relates to many complex issues such as the competence of SCAM practitioners, their ethical standards, education, regulation, trustworthiness and the risk of neglect.

Looking back, it feels odd that, at least for me, all this started with such a humble investigation almost a quarter of a century ago. Looking towards the future, I predict that we have so far merely seen the tip of the iceberg. The investigation of the risks of SCAM has finally started in earnest and will, I am sure, continue thus leading to a better protection of patients and consumers from charlatans and their bogus claims.

7 Responses to Homoeopathic remedies may be safe, but do all homeopaths merit this attribute?

  • @ Prof. Ernst,
    I have had the pleasure of reading your memoirs some time ago.
    Since then, I can´t help but feel great joy (to be honest, I should say “Schadenfreude”) when I imagine how often those responsible for your appointment at the University of Exeter must have regretted having appointed a real scientist to investigate their “alternative medicine”.
    It would certainly have been very easy to have picked of one of the many Quacks available.
    What an incredible bad choice…

    • the thing is that INITIALLY (~10 years) they were very pleased with my critical approach.
      things only changed when some of my peers seemed to be starting to hope of knighthoods etc.

      • Yeah, politics and science not always get along well.
        As soon as science disagrees with personal interests of politicians (your friend the Prince of Wales comes to mind) or with other aspects that the politician wants to take advantage of, scientific values and integrity are quickly neglected.

        In this regard, I remember well the poor performance of Angela Merkel back in 2011, when she threw all scientific integrity over board by defending her party colleague Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in his PhD plagiarism affair. Given that she has a PhD in physics, this depreciation of scientific values was an embarrassing declaration of bankruptcy on her part.

  • Homeo-MDs were and remain dangerous charlatans. This was again confirmed in 2016 by the Flemish-Dutch scientific magazine EOS. An actor-patient sought prevention advice for a trip to a very dangerous malaria region in Africa. The majority of homeo-doctors prescribed ONLY homeopathy and almost all omitted to mention the very efficient and recommended measure: impregnated mosquito nets.

  • One thing that has changed as a result is that some UK homeopaths, both lay and medical, are more guarded about discussing vaccination but not all of them. They’ve also tried to improve at PR (and pretty much failed).

    The number of UK homeopathy practitioners both medical and lay has been in decline for a number of years. Practitioners are retiring and there are fewer and fewer students. It’s not clear why fewer people want to study homeopathy but if trends continue some of the homeopathy associations, colleges and so on will go bust in the next 5 to 10 years.

    It would be nice to think that public attitudes towards homeopathy have changed because of increased awareness of what it is and its lack of evidence base. My guess is that it’s just become less fashionable.

  • The principle behind homeopathy is also the core of modern physiology. The homeopathic doctors in Hyderabad strongly recommend homeopathy for treating both chronic conditions and general diseases because its principles and way of treating conditions are permanent in nature.

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