MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

doctors

Doctor Jens Wurster is no stranger to this blog; previously I discussed his claim that he has treated more than 1000 cancer patients homeopathically and we could even cure or considerably ameliorate the quality of life for several years in some, advanced and metastasizing cases. So far, his claims were based not on evidence published in peer-reviewed journals (I cannot find a single Medline-listed paper by this man); but now Wurster has published an article in a German Journal (Wurster J. Zusatznutzen der Homöopathie … Deutsche Zeitschrift für Onkologie 2018; 50: 85–91; not Medline-listed, I am afraid). The paper is in German, but it has an English abstract; here it is:

____________________________________________________________________________

All over the world, oncology patients receive homeopathic treatment concomitant to conventional treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation treatment, in order to reduce the side effects of these therapies. It has been shown that cancer patients, who are receiving homeopathic treatment in addition to conventional therapies, have a higher quality of life and a longer survival rate. Studies in cancer cell research have shown the direct effects of highly potentized homeopathic medicines on tumor cell lines. Tumor inhibiting properties of homeopathic medicines have been proven in vivo as well as in vitro. Research projects into complementary medicine (CAMbrella) and research into personalized immunotherapies as well as additive homeopathy open the door to the future of integrative oncology.

_____________________________________________________________________________

In the article, Wurster states that he has 20 years of experience in treating cancer with homeopathy as an add-on to conventional care, and that he can confirm homeopathy’s effectiveness. He claims that ‘very many’ patients have thus benefitted by experiencing less side-effects of conventional treatments. And he offers two case-reports to illustrate this.

[Nach 20 Jahren klinischer Erfahrung in der Clinica St. Croce im Tessin mit der Behandlung onkologischer Patienten mithilfe der Homöopathie können wir deutlich den Zusatznutzen der Homöopathie in der Onkologie bestätigen [1]. So gelang es unserem Ärzteteam in den zurückliegenden Jahren bei sehr vielen Patienten, durch gezielten Einsatz homöopathischer Mittel die Nebenwirkungen von Chemotherapien oder Bestrahlungen erfolgreich zu reduzieren [1]. Wie dabei Schulmedizin und Homöopathie in der Praxis zusammenwirken, zeigt folgendes Beispiel. ([1] Wurster J. Die homöopathische Behandlung und Heilung von Krebs und metastasierten Tumoren. Norderstedt: Books on Demand; 2015)]

The two case-reports lack detail and are less than convincing, in my view. Both patients have had conventional therapies and Wurster claims that his homeopathic remedies reduced their side-effects. There is no way of verifying this claim, and the improvements might have occurred also without homeopathy.

In the discussion section of his paper, Wurster then elaborates that oncologists throughout Europe are now realising the potential of homeopathy. In support he mentions paediatric oncologists in Klagenfurt who managed to spare pain-killers by giving homeopathics. Similarly, at the Inselspital in Bern, they are offering homeopathic consultations to complement conventional treatments.

[Inzwischen haben auch einige Onkologen erkannt, wie eine gezielt eingesetzte homöopathische Behandlung die Nebenwirkungen von Chemotherapien oder Bestrahlungen reduzieren kann. Wir arbeiten inzwischen mit einigen Onkologen aus ganz Europa zusammen, die den Zusatznutzen der Homöopathie in der Onkologie erlebt haben. In der Kinderonkologie in Klagenfurt beispielsweise konnten mithilfe der Homöopathie Schmerzmittel bei den Kindern eingespart werden. Auch am Inselspital Bern werden zusätzliche homöopathische Konsile in der Kinderonkologie angeboten, um die konventionelle Behandlung begleiten zu können [8].]

At this point, Wurster inserts his reference number 8. As several of his references are either books or websites, this reference to an article in a top journal seems interesting. Here is its abstract:

___________________________________________________________________________________

BACKGROUND:

Though complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are frequently used by children and adolescents with cancer, there is little information on how and why they use it. This study examined prevalence and methods of CAM, the therapists who applied it, reasons for and against using CAM and its perceived effectiveness. Parent-perceived communication was also evaluated. Parents were asked if medical staff provided information on CAM to patients, if parents reported use of CAM to physicians, and what attitude they thought physicians had toward CAM.

STUDY DESIGN:

All childhood cancer patients treated at the University Children‘s Hospital Bern between 2002-2011 were retrospectively surveyed about their use of CAM.

RESULTS:

Data was collected from 133 patients (response rate: 52%). Of those, 53% had used CAM (mostly classical homeopathy) and 25% of patients received information about CAM from medical staff. Those diagnosed more recently were more likely to be informed about CAM options. The most frequent reason for choosing CAM was that parents thought it would improve the patient’s general condition. The most frequent reason for not using CAM was lack of information. Of those who used CAM, 87% perceived positive effects.

CONCLUSIONS:

Since many pediatric oncology patients use CAM, patients’ needs should be addressed by open communication between families, treating oncologists and CAM therapists, which will allow parents to make informed and safe choices about using CAM.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Any hope that this paper might back up the statements made by Wurster is thus disappointed.

Altogether, this Wurster-paper contains no reliable evidence. The only clinical trial it seems to rely on is the one by Prof Frass which we have discussed previously here and here. The Frass-study is odd in several ways and, before we can take its results seriously, we need to see an independent replication of its findings. In this context, it is noteworthy that my own 2006 systematic review concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support clinical efficacy of homeopathic therapy in cancer care. In view of all this, I feel that the new Wurster-paper provides no reliable evidence and no reason to change my now somewhat dated conclusion of 2006. Moreover, I would insist that those who claim otherwise are unethical and behave irresponsible.

And finally, I need to reiterate what I stated in my previous post: the Wurster-paper indicates that something is amiss with medical publishing. How can it be that, in 2018, the ‘Deutsche Zeitschrift für Onkologie’ (or any other medical journal for that matter) can be so bar of critical thinking to publish such dangerously misleading nonsense? The editors of this journal (Univ.-Prof. Dr. med. Arndt Büssing, Witten/Herdecke; Dr. med. Peter Holzhauer, Bad Trissl und München) and its editorial board members (L. Auerbach, Wien; C. Bahne Bahnson, Kiel; J. Büntzel, Nordhausen; B. Freimüller-Kreutzer, Heidelberg; H.R. Maurer, Berlin; A. Mayr, Starnberg; R. Moss, New York; T. Ostermann, Witten/Herdecke; K. Prasad, Denver; G. Pulverer, Köln; H. Renner, Nürnberg; C.P. Siegers, Lübeck; W. Schmidt, Greifswald; G. Uhlenbruck, Köln; B. Wolf, München; K.S. Zänker, Witten/Herdecke) should ask themselves whether they are taking their moral obligations seriously enough, or whether their behaviour is not a violation of their most fundamental ethical duties.

In our book ‘MORE HARM THAN GOOD‘ we allude to such problems as follows: …Spurious results are frequently paraded by CAM advocates in support of implausible treatments… the more poorly conceived and executed a research project is, the more likely it is to produce false-positive results. These results then may lead to repetitive cycles of unproductive work to explain what was found—often to simply disprove the erroneous results. This is an unfortunate feature of various fields of scientific research, but it has particularly serious implications in medical research. Moreover, researchers who practice and behave as advocates of CAM may unintentionally or deliberately distort or exaggerate weak findings. Invalid CAM research claims tend not to be put to rest; instead they are repeatedly recycled…

And:

The CAM practitioner who promotes untruths has either failed to enlighten themselves as to the facts—this being a central requirement of professional ethics— or has chosen to deliberately deceive patients. Either of these reasons for promulgating falsehoods amounts to a serious breach in terms of virtue ethics. According to almost all forms of ethical theory, the truth-violating nature of CAM renders it immoral in both theory and practice.

The damage that can result from such violations of medical ethics is not merely a matter for the ‘ivory towers of academia’, it can virtually be a matter of life and death.

The two German authors start their article (it is in German but has an English abstract to which I refer here) by claiming that “homeopathy is steadily gaining in sympathy in the population.” This is a very odd statement, considering that the sales figures in Germany and elsewhere have, in fact, been declining. Any homeopathy-paper with such an opening is naturally of interest to me.

As I read on, I find further surprises: “the possible effectiveness and the modes of action are currently not scientifically elucidated.” These are two big assumptions which happen to be both untrue:

  1. The effectiveness of homeopathy has now been tested in about 500 clinical trials, and the totality of the reliable evidence from these studies fails to show that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are more than placebos.
  2. The mode of action of homeopathy isn’t “not scientifically elucidated“, but the relevant science tells us that there cannot be a mode of action that is in line with the laws of nature as we understand them today.

And the surprises keep on coming: “there is a whole series of positive evidence for the effects of homeopathic remedies for mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders and addiction.” This statement is not in keeping with the results of a systematic review (which, by the way was authored by ardent homeopaths); here is the abstract:

_________________________________________________________________________________________

OBJECTIVE:

To systematically review placebo-controlled randomized trials of homeopathy for psychiatric conditions.

DATA SOURCES:

Eligible studies were identified using the following databases from database inception to April 2010: PubMed, CINAHL, PsycINFO, Hom-Inform, Cochrane CENTRAL, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine grantee publications database, and ClinicalTrials.gov. Gray literature was also searched using Google, Google Scholar, the European Committee for Homeopathy, inquiries with homeopathic experts and manufacturers, and the bibliographic lists of included published studies and reviews. Search terms were as follows: (homeopath* or homoeopath*) and (placebo or sham) and (anxiety or panic or phobia or post-traumatic stress or PTSD or obsessive-compulsive disorder or fear or depress* or dysthym* or attention deficit hyperactivity or premenstrual syndrome or premenstrual disorder or premenstrual dysphoric disorder or traumatic brain injury or fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalitis or insomnia or sleep disturbance). Searches included only English-language literature that reported randomized controlled trials in humans.

STUDY SELECTION:

Trials were included if they met 7 criteria and were assessed for possible bias using the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) 50 guidelines. Overall assessments were made using the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation procedure. Identified studies were grouped into anxiety or stress, sleep or circadian rhythm complaints, premenstrual problems, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, mild traumatic brain injury, and functional somatic syndromes.

RESULTS:

Twenty-five eligible studies were identified from an initial pool of 1,431. Study quality according to SIGN 50 criteria varied, with 6 assessed as good, 9 as fair, and 10 as poor. Outcome was unrelated to SIGN quality. Effect size could be calculated in 16 studies, and number needed to treat, in 10 studies. Efficacy was found for the functional somatic syndromes group (fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome), but not for anxiety or stress. For other disorders, homeopathy produced mixed effects. No placebo-controlled studies of depression were identified. Meaningful safety data were lacking in the reports, but the superficial findings suggested good tolerability of homeopathy. A funnel plot in 13 studies did not support publication bias (χ(2)(1) = 1.923, P = .166).

CONCLUSIONS:

The database on studies of homeopathy and placebo in psychiatry is very limited, but results do not preclude the possibility of some benefit.

___________________________________________________________________________________

And specifically for depression, another review (also by proponents of homeopathy) is available; here is its abstract:

OBJECTIVE:

To systematically review the research evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for the treatment of depression and depressive disorders.

METHODS:

A comprehensive search of major biomedical databases including MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, PsycINFO and the Cochrane Library was conducted. Specialist complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) databases including AMED, CISCOM and Hom-Inform were also searched. Additionally, efforts were made to identify unpublished and ongoing research using relevant sources and experts in the field. Relevant research was categorised by study type and appraised according to study design. Clinical commentaries were obtained for studies reporting clinical outcomes.

RESULTS:

Only two randomised controlled trials (RCTs) were identified. One of these, a feasibility study, demonstrated problems with recruitment of patients in primary care. Several uncontrolled and observational studies have reported positive results including high levels of patient satisfaction but because of the lack of a control group, it is difficult to assess the extent to which any response is due to specific effects of homeopathy. Single-case reports/studies were the most frequently encountered clinical study type. We also found surveys, but no relevant qualitative research studies were located.: Adverse effects reported appear limited to ‘remedy reactions’ (‘aggravations’) including temporary worsening of symptoms, symptom shifts and reappearance of old symptoms. These remedy reactions were generally transient but in one study, aggravation of symptoms caused withdrawal of the treatment in one patient.

CONCLUSIONS:

A comprehensive search for published and unpublished studies has demonstrated that the evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy in depression is limited due to lack of clinical trials of high quality. Further research is required, and should include well-designed controlled studies with sufficient numbers of participants. Qualitative studies aimed at overcoming recruitment and other problems should precede further RCTs. Methodological options include the incorporation of preference arms or uncontrolled observational studies. The highly individualised nature of much homeopathic treatment and the specificity of response may require innovative methods of analysis of individual treatment response.

____________________________________________________________________________________

Back to the new article I started discussing above. Its authors make a vague attempt at being reasonable: “It is clear that homoeopathic remedies can only be used as an add-on and not alone.” I find this statement slightly puzzling. If (as the authors assume) homeopathy is effective for mental disorders, why not on its own? Can a therapy that must not be used as a sole treatment be called effective?

The authors continue with another caveat:  “These remedies belong in the hands of physicians experienced in homeopathic and psychiatric psychopharmacology.” That’s actually quite funny! As the average homeopath has no experience in psychiatric psychopharmacology, they must not use homeopathy for mental conditions. I would agree with the conclusion but not with the reason given for it.

And now to the ‘grand finale’, the conclusion: “It would be advisable to at least try out homeopathy for the well-being of the patient not only in the case of very mild disorders but also in severe chronic cases, since due to the generally good tolerability, no avoidable disadvantage should result.” That sort of conclusion makes me almost speechless. The evidence fails to show that it works, yet it is ADVISABLE to use it in severe chronic cases!

Such articles suggest to me that homeopathy is a cult where logic and reason are irrelevant and need to be supressed. They also indicate that something is amiss with medical publishing. How can it be that, in 2018, ‘Der Nervenarzt’ (or any other medical journal for that matter) can be so bar of critical thinking to publish such dangerously misleading nonsense? ‘Der Nervenarzt‘, by the way, claims to be an internationally recognized journal addressing neurologists and psychiatrists working in clinical or practical environments. Essential findings and current information from neurology, psychiatry as well as neuropathology, neurosurgery up to psychotherapy are presented.

The wishes of a patient do not over-rule medical knowledge!” (Patientenwunsch steht nicht über medizinischem Wissen)

This was one brave conclusion drawn in a discussion about homeopathy during a recent German radio programme. Specifically, the discussion was about the pros and cons of a leading paediatric hospital of the Ludwig Maximilian Universitaet (LMU) Munich offering homeopathy to its patients (they also run a course in homeopathy which we discussed previously).

The wishes of a patient does not over-rule medical knowledge!

This sentence made me think.

Is it correct?

An interesting question with ethical dimensions!

The short answer is NO, I believe..

Patients can always refuse to have a given therapy, if they so wish. Or they might opt for one evidence-based therapy instead of another. And in certain circumstances such wishes may well be completely against the current best medical knowledge.

But this is probably where the dominance of the patient’s wishes over medical knowledge ends — at least, if we only consider wishes paid for by the public purse (otherwise, anyone can, of course, buy almost any rubbish).

And that was not what the above-mentioned discussion was about. It focussed on the arguments by the LMU to justify their offer of homeopathy to sick children. Essentially, they seem to say:

  • We believe in evidence-based medicine (EBM) and are fully dedicated to its principles.
  • We know that homeopathy is not evidence-based.
  • Yet, many of the parents want us to use homeopathy in the treatment of their kids.
  • And the wish of a patient over-rules the medical evidence.

This is, of course, a flawed argument. One cannot subscribe to EBM and, at the same time, administer overt nonsensical, disproven treatments. A patient’s wish does not render a nonsensical treatment evidence-based. If one would follow the LMU logic, one would have to use any idiotic therapy … and could still pride oneself to follow EBM practice. In England, we call this ‘having the cake and eat it’; once you eat the cake, it’s gone and you cannot have it any longer.

What follows is simple: the decision makers at the LMU have been found out with (homeopathically potentised) egg on their faces (for some reason they had this homeopathy enclave for years, it is well-established and, I suspect, even better protected by some people of influence). They quickly tried to find a way out of their dilemma. Unfortunately, they did not think hard enough; the solution to bank on patient choice turns out to be a non-solution.

I therefore suggest they get in line with the role of a University hospital, with today’s medical thinking and medical ethics. This would mean re-considering their homeopathy course as well as their inclusion of homeopathy in publicly-funded routine care.

Is homeopathy effective for specific conditions? The FACULTY OF HOMEOPATHY (FoH, the professional organisation of UK doctor homeopaths) say YES. In support of this bold statement, they cite a total of 35 systematic reviews of homeopathy with a focus on specific clinical areas. “Nine of these 35 reviews presented conclusions that were positive for homeopathy”, they claim. Here they are:

Allergies and upper respiratory tract infections 8,9
Childhood diarrhoea 10
Post-operative ileus 11
Rheumatic diseases 12
Seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever) 13–15
Vertigo 16

And here are the references (I took the liberty of adding my comments in blod):

8. Bornhöft G, Wolf U, Ammon K, et al. Effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness of homeopathy in general practice – summarized health technology assessment. Forschende Komplementärmedizin, 2006; 13 Suppl 2: 19–29.

This is the infamous ‘Swiss report‘ which, nowadays, only homeopaths take seriously.

9. Bellavite P, Ortolani R, Pontarollo F, et al. Immunology and homeopathy. 4. Clinical studies – Part 1. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM, 2006; 3: 293–301.

This is not a systematic review as it lacks any critical assessment of the primary data and includes observational studies and even case series.

10. Jacobs J, Jonas WB, Jimenez-Perez M, Crothers D. Homeopathy for childhood diarrhea: combined results and metaanalysis from three randomized, controlled clinical trials. Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, 2003; 22: 229–234.

This is a meta-analysis by Jennifer Jacobs (who recently featured on this blog) of 3 studies by Jennifer Jacobs; hardly convincing I’d say.

11. Barnes J, Resch K-L, Ernst E. Homeopathy for postoperative ileus? A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, 1997; 25: 628–633.

This is my own paper! It concluded that “several caveats preclude a definitive judgment.”

12. Jonas WB, Linde K, Ramirez G. Homeopathy and rheumatic disease. Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America, 2000; 26: 117–123.

This is not a systematic review; here is the (unabridged) abstract:

Despite a growing interest in uncovering the basic mechanisms of arthritis, medical treatment remains symptomatic. Current medical treatments do not consistently halt the long-term progression of these diseases, and surgery may still be needed to restore mechanical function in large joints. Patients with rheumatic syndromes often seek alternative therapies, with homeopathy being one of the most frequent. Homeopathy is one of the most frequently used complementary therapies worldwide.

Proper systematic reviews fail to show that homeopathy is an effective treatment for rheumatic conditions (see for instance here and here).

13. Wiesenauer M, Lüdtke R. A meta-analysis of the homeopathic treatment of pollinosis with Galphimia glauca. Forschende Komplementärmedizin und Klassische Naturheilkunde, 1996; 3: 230–236.

This is a meta-analysis by Wiesenauer of trials conducted by Wiesenauer.

My own, more recent analysis of these data arrived at a considerably less favourable conclusion: “… three of the four currently available placebo-controlled RCTs of homeopathic Galphimia glauca (GG) suggest this therapy is an effective symptomatic treatment for hay fever. There are, however, important caveats. Most essentially, independent replication would be required before GG can be considered for the routine treatment of hay fever. (Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies September 2011 16(3))

14. Taylor MA, Reilly D, Llewellyn-Jones RH, et al. Randomised controlled trials of homoeopathy versus placebo in perennial allergic rhinitis with overview of four trial series. British Medical Journal, 2000; 321: 471–476.

This is a meta-analysis by David Reilly of 4 RCTs which were all conducted by David Reilly. This attracted heavy criticism; see here and here, for instance.

15. Bellavite P, Ortolani R, Pontarollo F, et al. Immunology and homeopathy. 4. Clinical studies – Part 2. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM, 2006; 3: 397–409.

This is not a systematic review as it lacks any critical assessment of the primary data and includes observational studies and even case series.

16. Schneider B, Klein P, Weiser M. Treatment of vertigo with a homeopathic complex remedy compared with usual treatments: a meta-analysis of clinical trials. Arzneimittelforschung, 2005; 55: 23–29.

This is a meta-analysis of 2 (!) RCTs and 2 observational studies of ‘Vertigoheel’, a preparation which is not a homeopathic but a homotoxicologic remedy (it does not follow the ‘like cures like’ assumption of homeopathy) . Moreover, this product contains pharmacologically active substances (and nobody doubts that active substances can have effects).

________________________________________________________________________________

So, positive evidence from 9 systematic reviews in 6 specific clinical areas?

I let you answer this question.

My previous post was about the question whether lay-homeopaths can practise homeopathy without breaking their code of ethics. The answer was NO, because they lack most of the skills needed to obtain informed consent.

What about doctor homeopaths?

Can they practice homeopathy ethically?

Doctors are, of course, also obliged to follow their ethical code, and that means they too must obtain informed consent from their patients before starting a therapy. This is, for instance, what the UK General Medical Council tells their members:

You must give patients the information they want or need about:

  1. the diagnosis and prognosis
  2. any uncertainties about the diagnosis or prognosis, including options for further investigations
  3. options for treating or managing the condition, including the option not to treat
  4. the purpose of any proposed investigation or treatment and what it will involve
  5. the potential benefits, risks and burdens, and the likelihood of success, for each option; this should include information, if available, about whether the benefits or risks are affected by which organisation or doctor is chosen to provide care
  6. whether a proposed investigation or treatment is part of a research programme or is an innovative treatment designed specifically for their benefit4 
  7. the people who will be mainly responsible for and involved in their care, what their roles are, and to what extent students may be involved
  8. their right to refuse to take part in teaching or research
  9. their right to seek a second opinion
  10. any bills they will have to pay
  11. any conflicts of interest that you, or your organisation, may have
  12. any treatments that you believe have greater potential benefit for the patient than those you or your organisation can offer.

You should explore these matters with patients, listen to their concerns, ask for and respect their views, and encourage them to ask questions.

You should check whether patients have understood the information they have been given, and whether or not they would like more information before making a decision. You must make it clear that they can change their mind about a decision.

Following the 8 points from my previous post (I am trying to apply the same criteria to both types of homeopaths), a medical homeopath might tell her patient (whose stomach pain turns out to be caused, let’s assume, by a stomach ulcer) roughly this:

  1. The tests show that you are suffering from stomach ulcer.
  2. The natural history of this condition is usually benign, but it needs effective treatment; if not, the problem would become serious.
  3. Conventional medicine has several effective therapeutic options.
  4. I nevertheless propose to treat you with a homeopathic remedy.
  5. There is no good evidence that it will work beyond a placebo effect.
  6. The remedy is harmless, but not giving you an effective treatment might cause considerable harm.
  7. The cost of the consultation is £80, and the remedy will cost you around £15.
  8. I suggest you come again in a week or two; perhaps we need quite a few consultations altogether.

Again, as with the lay-homeopath from my previous post, any sensible patient would walk away without accepting the treatment. This means that our doctor homeopath can only practice homeopathy, if she does not inform her patient about points 5 and 6. In other words, doctors who practice homeopathy cannot obtain adequately informed consent. We have recently seen a real case of this happening and ending in the death of the patient.

Of course, the homeopath might send her patient to a specialist; or she might decide to administer a conventional therapy herself. Either way, she would not be practising homeopathy.

The dilemma is real, yet it is rarely considered. Here is a short passage from our book where we discuss the ethics of alternative medicine in full detail:

Genuine informed consent is unattainable for most CAM modalities. This presents a serious and intractable ethical problem for CAM practitioners. Attempts to square this circle by watering down or redefining the criteria for informed consent are ethically indefensible. The concept of informed consent and its centrality in medical ethics therefore renders most CAM practice unacceptable. Conventional healthcare subscribes to the ethical principle ‘no consent, no treatment’; we are not aware of the existence of any good reasons to excuse CAM from this dictum.

As I said, the ethical practice of homeopathy is a practical impossibility.

Or do you think I got this wrong?

Switzerland seems to be something like the ‘promised land’ for homeopaths – at least this is what many homeopaths seem think. However, homeopaths’ thinking is rarely correct, and the situation of homeopathy in Switzerland is not quite what they believe it to be.

This article explains (my English explanations are below for all those you cannot do German):

________________________________________________________________________________

Die Schweiz bekommt die steigenden Gesundheitskosten einfach nicht in den Griff. In den 20 Jahren zwischen 1996 und 2016 haben sie sich um rund 255,2 Prozent erhöht…
Einer der Gründe für den Anstieg: Seit 2017 sind Komplementärmedizinische Methoden wie beispielsweise Homöopathie auch in der Grundversorgung inbegriffen. Das Volk hatte im Jahr 2009 einen entsprechenden Verfassungsartikel angenommen. Damals hoffte man noch, dass mit dem erleichterten Zugang zur Komplementärmedizin die Gesundheitskosten sinken würden.
Doch es kam anders. Die Komplementärmedizin verursachte letztes Jahr zusätzliche Kosten von 30 Millionen Franken, wie Sandra Kobelt, Sprecherin Krankenkassenverbandes Santésuisse, gegenüber BLICK bestätigt.

Die Komplementärmedizin sorgt entsprechend weiter für Diskussionen. Auch, weil zum Beispiel die Wirkung der beliebten Globuli-Kügeli bis heute höchst umstritten bleibt. Doch auch sie werden laut neuem Gesetz in jedem Fall von der Krankenkasse bezahlt, sofern sie von einem Homöopathen mit medizinischem Fachausweis verschrieben wurden…

Aus wissenschaftlicher Sicht macht diese Bevorzugung der Homöopathie wenig Sinn. Denn: In einem Statement aus dem Jahr 2017 bestritten insgesamt 25 europäische Wissenschaftsvereinigungen die Wirksamkeit von Globuli. Darunter auch die Akademien der Wissenschaft Schweiz, die mit den Schweizer Hochschulen zusammenarbeiten. Sie halten fest, dass Homöopathie sogar gefährlich sein kann, da zu ihren Gunsten eine schulmedizinische Therapie aufgeschoben oder gar abgelehnt wird.

Dieser Meinung ist auch Beda Stadler, der ehemalige Leiter des Instituts für Immunologie an der Uni Bern. «Globuli verursachen nur unnötige Gesundheitskosten», sagt er. Man habe das Volk 2009 getäuscht, indem man ihm erzählte, Globuli wären ja günstig. «Doch viele Allergiker setzen die Globuli nicht ab, nachdem sie keine Wirkung festgestellt haben. Stattdessen schlucken sie noch zusätzlich medizinische Tabletten – das verursacht doppelte Kosten», so Stadler.

Homöopathin und Ärztin Doktor Gisela Etter hält dagegen. «Ich erlebe jeden Tag, wie Homöopathie bei Allergikern wirkt. Bei vielen treten die Symptome nach einiger Zeit überhaupt nicht mehr auf», sagt sie. Das Problem: Den Wirkungsmechanismus der Globuli kann die Medizinerin nicht erklären. «Das ist mit den herkömmlichen Naturwissenschaften gar nicht möglich», so Etter…

_________________________________________________________________________

Let me try to translate the key points of this article:

  • The costs for healthcare have exploded in Switzerland; an increase of > 255% during the last 10 years.
  • One reason for this development is that, since 2017, the Swiss get various alternative therapies reimbursed, including homeopathy.
  • That move has cost 30 000 000 Francs last year.
  • The efficacy of homeopathic remedies is controversial.
  • Yet they are being paid for by Swiss health insurances, provided they are prescribed by a qualified doctor.
  • This does not make sense from a scientific perspective.
  • In 2017, 25 European scientific societies, including the Swiss academies, stated that homeopathy does not work and can even be dangerous, if it replaces effective treatments.
  • Beda Stadler, former director of the Institute of Immunology, Uni Bern said “Globuli only cause unnecessary healthcare costs”
  • Homoeopath Gisela Etter said “I see every day how homeopathy works for allergies… to explain the mechanism of action is not possible with conventional science.”

__________________________________________________________________________________

I suppose, we will have to wait for some unconventional science then!

In Germany, homeopathy had been an undisputed favourite for a very long time. Doctors prescribed it, Heilpraktiker recommended it, patients took it and consumers, politicians, journalists, etc. hardly ever questioned it. But recently, this has changed; thanks not least to the INH and the ‘Muensteraner Kreis‘, some Germans are finally objecting to paying for the homeopathic follies of others. Remarkably, this might even have led to a dent in the sizable profits of homeopathy producers: while in 2016 the industry sold about 55 million units of homeopathic preparations, the figure had decreased to ‘just’ ~53 million in 2017.

Enough reason, it seems, for some manufacturers to panic. The largest one is the DHU (Deutsche Homoeopathische Union), and they recently decided to go on the counter attack by investing into a large PR campaign. This article (in German, I’m afraid) explains:

…Unter dem Hashtag #MachAuchDuMit lädt die Initiative Anwenderinnen und Anwender ein, ihre guten Erfahrungen in Sachen Homöopathie zu teilen. “Über 30 Millionen zufriedene Menschen setzen für ihre Gesundheit auf Homöopathie und vertrauen ihr. Mit unserer Initiative wollen wir das Selbstbewusstsein der Menschen stärken, sich für die Homöopathie zu entscheiden oder mindestens für eine freie Wahl einzustehen,” so Peter Braun, Geschäftsführer der DHU…

“Die Therapiefreiheit, die in unserem Slogan mit “Meine Entscheidung!” zum Ausdruck kommt, ist uns das wichtigste in dieser Initiative”, unterstreicht Peter Braun. Und dafür lohnt es sich aktiv zu werden, wie der Schweizer weiß. 2017 haben sich die Menschen in der Schweiz per Volksabstimmung für das Konzept einer integrativen Medizin entschieden. Neben der Schulmedizin können dort auch weitere Therapieverfahren wie Homöopathie oder Naturmedizin zum Einsatz kommen.

In Deutschland will die DHU mit ihrer Initiative Transparenz schaffen und die Homöopathie hinsichtlich Fakten und Erfolge realistisch darstellen. Dafür besteht offensichtlich Bedarf: “Wir als DHU haben in der jüngsten Vergangenheit dutzende spontane Anfragen bekommen, für die Homöopathie Flagge zu zeigen”.

Was die Inhalte der Initiative angeht betont Peter Braun, dass es dabei nie um ein “Entweder-Oder” zwischen Schulmedizin und anderen Therapieverfahren gehen soll: “Die Kombination der jeweils am besten für den Patienten passenden Methode im Sinne von “Hand-in-Hand” ist das Ziel der modernen integrativen Medizin. In keiner Art und Weise ist eine Entscheidung für die Homöopathie eine Entscheidung gegen die Schulmedizin. Beides hat seine Berechtigung und ergänzt sich in vielen Fällen.”

——————————————————————————————————————

For those who do not read German, I will pick out a few central themes from the text.

Amongst other things, the DHU proclaim that:

  1. Homeopathy has millions of satisfied customers in Germany.
  2. The campaign aims at defending customers’ choice.
  3. The campaign declares to present the facts realistically.
  4. The decision is “never an ‘either or’ between conventional medicine (Schulmedizin) and other methods”; combining those therapies that suit the patient best is the aim of modern Integrative Medicine.

It is clear to anyone who is capable of critical thinking tha
t these 4 points are fallacious to the extreme. For those to whom it isn’t so clear, let me briefly explain:

  1. The ‘appeal to popularity’ is a classical fallacy.
  2. Nobody wants to curtail patients’ freedom to chose the therapy they want. The discussion is about who should pay for ineffective remedies. Even if homeopathy will, one day, be no longer reimbursable in Germany, consumers will still be able to buy it with their own money.
  3. The campaign has so far not presented the facts about homeopathy (i. e. the remedies contain nothing, homeopathy relies on implausible assumptions, the evidence fails to show that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are effective beyond placebo).
  4. Hahnemann called all homeopaths who combined his remedies with conventional treatments ‘traitors’ (‘Verraeter’) and coined the term ‘Schulmedizin’ to defame mainstream medicine.

The DHU campaign has only started recently, but already it seems to backfire big way. Social media are full with comments pointing out how pathetic it truly is, and many Germans have taken to making fun at it on social media. Personally, I cannot say I blame them – not least because the latest DHU campaign reminds me of the 2012 DHU-sponsored PR campaign. At the time, quackometer reported:

A consortium of pharmaceutical companies in Germany have been paying a journalist €43,000 to run a set of web sites that denigrates an academic who has published research into  their products.

These companies, who make homeopathic sugar pills, were exposed in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in an article, Schmutzige Methoden der sanften Medizin (The Dirty Tricks of Alternative Medicine.)

This story has not appeared in the UK media. And it should. Because it is a scandal that directly involves the UK’s most prominent academic in Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

The newspaper accuses the companies of funding the journalist, Claus Fritzsche, to denigrate critics of homeopathy. In particular, the accusation is that Fritzsche wrote about UK academic Professor Edzard Ernst on several web sites and then linked them together in order to raise their Google ranking. Fritzsche continually attacks Ernst of being frivolous, incompetent and partisan…

This story ended tragically; Fritzsche committed suicide.

My impression is that the PR-campaigns of homeopaths in general and the DHU in particular are rather ill-fated. Perhaps they should just forget about PR and do what responsible manufacturers should aim at doing: inform the public according to the best evidence currently available, even if this might make a tiny dent in their huge profits.

My friend Gustav Born FRS died on 16 April 2018.

Gustav was born into a Jewish family that emigrated from 1930s Goettingen (Germany) to the UK. His father Max, a friend of Einstein, was a physicist who received a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum mechanics. Gustav  served in the British forces as a doctor during WW2. After the war, he became a pharmacologist in London and Cambridge who had many achievements to his name. For instance, he discovered the mechanisms through which the body stops bleeding and initiates blood clotting. He also invented the platelet aggregometer that is still used universally to quantify platelet activity and which he never patented so that not he but mankind would benefit from it. Gustav was indefatigable and continued his research for many years after his retirement. His work was crowned with uncounted scientific awards.

There have been numerous, much more detailed obituaries honouring Gustav e. g.:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/apr/26/gustav-born-obituary

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/gustav-born-obituary-gt5k9r8jc

Mine is merely a personal tribute. I met Gustav in the early 1990s while working in Vienna. We became close friends, and he took me under his wings, encouraged me to come to the UK, wrote a glowing reference when I applied for the Exeter post, and gave me moral support whenever I needed it.

After I had moved to the UK, we regularly met, and he even came to my 50th birthday party insisting to make a speech. About 15 years ago, he once attended one of my public lectures on alternative medicine; afterwards his comment was: “you know, your work is going to save lives.” Since my retirement, he kept phoning me at home (apparently Gustav had an irresistible attraction to the telephone) and urged me, usually speaking in German, to arrange a meeting. We always concluded that this must be soon; sadly, however, this did not happen.

Gustav was a great story-teller. One of his preferred anecdotes related to homeopathy. He recounted (interrupting himself giggling) that, when Einstein and his father once were talking, someone mentioned homeopathy and asked them what they thought of it. Einstein reflected for a little while and then said: “If one were to lock up 10 very clever people in a room and told them they were only allowed out once they had come up with the most stupid idea conceivable, they would soon come up with homeopathy.”

It is therefore not surprising that, when I invited Gustav to contribute a chapter to my book ‘HEALING, HYPE OR HARM?‘, he agreed to write an essay entitled ‘HOMEOPATHY IN CONTEXT’. Here is a short extract from it: What can be done to counteract the persistence of homeopathy? Its unwarranted claims must be continuously exposed. The diversion of public money from the proper purposed of the NHS must be stopped.

I shall miss Gustav for his clear thinking, his wry humour, his unfailing support and fatherly friendship.

Have you ever wondered whether doctors who practice homeopathy are different from those who don’t.

Silly question, of course they are! But how do they differ?

Having practised homeopathy myself during my very early days as a physician, I have often thought about this issue. My personal (and not very flattering) impressions were noted in my memoir where I describe my experience working in a German homeopathic hospital:

some of my colleagues used homeopathy and other alternative approaches because they could not quite cope with the often exceedingly high demands of conventional medicine. It is almost understandable that, if a physician was having trouble comprehending the multifactorial causes and mechanisms of disease and illness, or for one reason or another could not master the equally complex process of reaching a diagnosis or finding an effective therapy, it might be tempting instead to employ notions such as dowsing, homeopathy or acupuncture, whose theoretical basis, unsullied by the inconvenient absolutes of science, was immeasurably more easy to grasp. 

Some of my colleagues in the homeopathic hospital were clearly not cut out to be “real” doctors. Even a very junior doctor like me could not help noticing this somewhat embarrassing fact… 

But this is anecdote and not evidence!

So, where is the evidence?

It was published last week and made headlines in many UK daily papers.

Our study was aimed at finding out whether English GP practices that prescribe any homeopathic preparations might differ in their prescribing of other drugs. We identified practices that made any homeopathy prescriptions over six months of data. We measured associations with four prescribing and two practice quality indicators using multivariable logistic regression.

Only 8.5% of practices (644) prescribed homeopathy between December 2016 and May 2017. Practices in the worst-scoring quartile for a composite measure of prescribing quality were 2.1 times more likely to prescribe homeopathy than those in the best category. Aggregate savings from the subset of these measures where a cost saving could be calculated were also strongly associated. Of practices spending the most on medicines identified as ‘low value’ by NHS England, 12.8% prescribed homeopathy, compared to 3.9% for lowest spenders. Of practices in the worst category for aggregated price-per-unit cost savings, 12.7% prescribed homeopathy, compared to 3.5% in the best category. Practice quality outcomes framework scores and patient recommendation rates were not associated with prescribing homeopathy.

We concluded that even infrequent homeopathy prescribing is strongly associated with poor performance on a range of prescribing quality measures, but not with overall patient recommendation or quality outcomes framework score. The association is unlikely to be a direct causal relationship, but may reflect underlying practice features, such as the extent of respect for evidence-based practice, or poorer stewardship of the prescribing budget.

Since our study was reported in almost all of the UK newspapers, it comes as no surprise that, in the interest of ‘journalistic balance’, homeopaths were invited to give their ‘expert’ opinions on our work.

Margaret Wyllie, head of the British Homeopathic Association, was quoted commenting: “This is another example of how real patient experience and health outcomes are so often discounted, when in actuality they should be the primary driver for research to improve our NHS services. This study provides no useful evidence about homeopathy, or about prescribing, and gives absolutely no data that can improve the health of people in the UK.”

The Faculty of Homeopathy was equally unhappy about our study and stated: “The study did not include any measures of patient outcomes, so it doesn’t tell us how the use of homeopathy in English general practice correlates with patients doing well or badly, nor with how many drugs they use.”

Cristal Summer from the Society of Homeopathy said that our research was just a rubbish bit of a study.

Peter Fisher, the Queen’s homeopath and the president of the Faculty of Homeopathy, stated: “We don’t know if these measures correlate with what matters to patients – whether they get better and have side-effects.”

A study aimed at determining whether GP practices that prescribe homeopathic preparations differ in their prescribing habits from those that do not prescribe homeopathics can hardly address these questions, Peter. A test of washing machines can hardly tell us much about the punctuality of trains. And an investigation into the risks of bungee jumping will not inform us about the benefits of regular exercise. Call me biased, but to me these comments indicate mainly one thing: HOMEOPATHS SEEM TO HAVE GREAT DIFFICULTIES UNDERSTANDING SCIENTIFIC PAPERS.

I much prefer the witty remarks of Catherine Bennett in yesterday’s Observer: Homeopath-GPs, naturally, have mustered in response and challenge Goldacre’s findings, with a concern for methodology that could easily give the impression that there is some evidential basis for their parallel system, beyond the fact that the Prince of Wales likes it. In fairness to Charles, his upbringing is to blame. But what is the doctors’ excuse?

I have written about the use of homeopathy in France before (as I now live half of my time in France, this is a subject of considerable interest to me). After decades of deafening silence and uncritical acceptance by the French public, it seems that finally some change to the better might be on its way. Recently, a sizable number of prominent doctors protested publicly against the fact that, despite its implausibility and the lack of proof of efficacy, homeopathy continues to be reimbursed in France and scarce funds are being wasted on it. This action seems to have put pressure on officials to respond.

Yesterday (just in time for the ‘HOMEOPATHIC AWARENESS WEEK’) the French minister of health was quoted making a statement on homeopathy. Here is my translation of what Agnès Buzyn was quoted saying:

“There is a continuous evaluation of the medicines we call complementary. A working group* at the head office of my department checks that all these practices are not dangerous. If a therapy continues to be beneficial without being harmful, it continues to be reimbursed… The French are very attached [to homeopathy]; it’s probably a placebo effect. If it can prevent the use of toxic medicine, I think that we all win. I does not hurt.”

Agnès Buzyn

  • I would like to know who they are, how they can be contacted, and whether they would consider recruiting my assistance in evaluating alternative therapies.

So, if I understand her correctly, Agnès Buzyn believes that:

  1. the French people are fond of homeopathy;
  2. homeopathy is a placebo-therapy;
  3. homeopathy does no harm;
  4. homeopathy can even prevent harm from conventional medicine;
  5. on balance, therefore, homeopathy should continue to be reimbursed in France.

My views of this type of reasoning have been expressed repeatedly. Nevertheless, I will briefly state them again:

  1. true but not relevant; healthcare is not a popularity contest; and the current popularity is essentially the result of decades of systematic misinformation of consumers;
  2. correct;
  3. wrong: we have, on this blog, discussed ad nauseam how homeopathy can cause serious harm; for instance, whenever it replaces effective treatments, it can cause serious harm and might even kill patients;
  4. if doctors harm patients by needlessly prescribing harmful treatments, we need to re-train them and stop this abuse; using homeopathy is not the solution to bad medicine;
  5. wrong: the reimbursement of homeopathy is a waste of money and undermines evidence-based medicine.

So, what’s the conclusion?

Politicians are usually not good at understanding science or scientific evidence. They (have to?) think in time spans from one election to the next. And they are, of course, keenly aware that, in order to stay in power, they rely on the vote of the people. Therefore, the popularity of homeopathy (even though it is scientifically irrelevant) is a very real factor for them. This means that, on a political level, homeopathy is sadly much more secure than it should be. In turn, this means we need to:

  • use different arguments when arguing with politicians (for instance, the economic impact of wasting money on placebo-therapies, or the fact that systematically misinforming the public is highly unethical and counter-productive),
  • and make politicians understand science better than they do at present, perhaps even insist that ministers are experts in their respective areas (i. e. a minister of health fully understands the fundamental issues of healthcare).

Does that mean the new developments in the realm of French homeopathy are all doomed to failure?

No, I don’t think so – at least (and at last) we have a vocal group of doctors protesting against wasteful nonsense, and a fairly sound and accurate statement from a French minister of health:

HOMEOPATHY, IT’S PROBABLY A PLACEBO EFFECT!

 

Recent Comments

Note that comments can be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted.


Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.

Categories