The primary objective of this paper was to assess the efficacy of homeopathy by systematically reviewing existing systematic reviews and meta-analyses and to systematically review trials on open-label placebo (OLP) treatments. A secondary objective was to understand whether homoeopathy as a whole may be considered as a placebo treatment. Electronic databases and previously published papers were systematically searched for systematic reviews and meta-analyses on homoeopathy efficacy. In total, 61 systematic reviews of homeopathy were included.
The same databases plus the Journal of Interdisciplinary Placebo Studies (JIPS) were also systematically searched for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) on OLP treatments, and 10 studies were included.
Qualitative syntheses showed that homoeopathy efficacy can be considered comparable to placebo. Twenty‐five reviews demonstrated that homoeopathy efficacy is comparable to placebo, 20 reviews did not come to a definite conclusion, and 16 reviews concluded that homoeopathy has some effect beyond placebo (in some cases of the latter category, authors drew cautious conclusions, due to low methodological quality of included trials, high risk of bias and sparse data).
Qualitative syntheses also showed that OLP treatments may be effective in some health conditions.
The authors concluded that, if homoeopathy efficacy is comparable to placebo, and if placebo treatments can be effective in some conditions, then homoeopathy as a whole may be considered as a placebo treatment. Reinterpreting homoeopathy as a placebo treatment would define limits and possibilities of this practice. This perspective shift suggests a strategy to manage patients who seek homoeopathic care and to reconcile them with mainstream medicine in a sustainable way.
The authors also mention in their discussion section that one of the most important work which concluded that homoeopathy has some effect beyond placebo is the meta‐analysis performed by Linde et al. (1997), which included 119 trials with 2,588 participants and aimed to assess the efficacy of homoeopathy for many conditions. Among these ones, there were conditions with various degrees of placebo responsiveness. This work was thoroughly re‐analysed by Linde himself and other authors (Ernst, 1998; Ernst & Pittler, 2000; Linde et al., 1999; Morrison et al., 2000; Sterne et al., 2001), who, selecting high‐quality extractable data and taking into consideration some methodological issues and biases of included trials (like publication bias and biases within studies), underscored that it cannot be demonstrated that homoeopathy has effects beyond placebo.
I agree with much of what the authors state. However, I fail to see that homeopathy should be used as an OLP treatment. I have several reasons for this, for instance:
- Placebo effects are unreliable and do occur only in some but not all patients.
- Placebo effects are usually of short duration.
- Placebo effects are rarely of a clinically relevant magnitude.
- The use of placebo, even when given as OLP, usually involves deception which is unethical.
- Placebos might replace effective treatments which would amount to neglect.
- One does not need a placebo for generating a placebo effect.
The idea that homeopathic remedies could be used in clinical practice as placebos to generate positive health outcomes is by no means new. I know that many doctors have used it that way. The idea that homeopathy could be employed as OLP, might be new, but it is neither practical, nor ethical, nor progressive.
Regardless of this particular debate, this new review confirms yet again:
HOMEOPATHY = PLACEBO THERAPY
The inventor of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, was a German physician. It is therefore not surprising that homeopathy quickly took hold in Germany. After its initial success, homeopathy’s history turned out to be a bit of a roller coaster. But only recently, a vocal and effective opposition has come to the fore (see my previous post).
Despite the increasing opposition, the advent of EBM, and the much-publicised fact that the best evidence fails to show homeopathy’s effectiveness, there are many doctors who still practice it. According to one website, there are 4330 doctor homeopaths in Germany (plus, of course, almost the same number of Heilpraktiker who also use homeopathy). This figure is, however, out-dated. The German Medical Association told a friend that, at the end of 2017, there were 5612 doctors practising in Germany who hold the additional qualification (‘Zusatz-Weiterbildung’) homeopathy.
That’s a lot, I find.
Why so many?
Whenever I give lectures on the subject, this is the question that comes up with unfailing regularity. Many people who ask would also imply that, if so many doctors use it, homeopathy must be fine, because doctors have studied and know what they are doing.
My answer usually is that the phenomenon is due to many factors:
- powerful lobby groups,
- patient demand,
- homeopathy’s image of being gentle, safe and holistic,
- patients’ need to believe in something more than ‘just science’,
- the fact that most German health insurances reimburse it,
- political support,
But, in fact, the true explanation, as I have learnt recently, might be much simpler and more profane: MONEY!
A German GP gets 4.36 Euros for taking a conventional history.
If he is a homeopath taking an initial homeopathic history, (s)he gets 130 € according to the ‘Selektivvertrag’.
So, yes, doctors have studied and know that the difference between the two amounts is significant.
In the latest issue of ‘Simile’ (the Faculty of Homeopathy‘s newsletter), the following short article with the above title has been published. I took the liberty of copying it for you:
Members of the Faculty of Homeopathy practising in the UK have the opportunity to take part in a trial of a new homeopathic remedy for treating infant colic. An American manufacturer of homeopathic remedies has made a registration application for the new remedy to the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) under the UK “National Rules” scheme. As part of its application the manufacturer is seeking at least two homeopathic doctors who would be willing to trial the product for about a year, then write a short report about using the remedy and its clinical results. If you would like to take part in the trial, further details can be obtained from …
END OF QUOTE
A homeopathic remedy for infant colic?
The British Homeopathic Association and many similar ‘professional’ organisations recommend homeopathy for infant colic: Infantile colic is a common problem in babies, especially up to around sixteen weeks of age. It is characterised by incessant crying, often inconsolable, usually in the evenings and often through the night. Having excluded underlying pathology, the standard advice given by GPs and health visitors is winding technique, Infacol or Gripe Water. These measures are often ineffective but fortunately there are a number of homeopathic medicines that may be effective. In my experience Colocynth is the most successful; alternatives are Carbo Veg, Chamomilla and Nux vomica.
SO, IT MUST BE GOOD!
But hold on, I cannot find a single clinical trial to suggest that homeopathy is effective for infant colic.
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I see, that’s why they now want to conduct a trial!
They want to do the right thing and do some science to see whether their claims are supported by evidence.
How very laudable!
After all, the members of the Faculty of Homeopathy are doctors; they have certain ethical standards!
After all, the Faculty of Homeopathy aims to provide a high level of service to members and members of the public at all times.
Judging from the short text about the ‘homeopathy for infant colic trial’, it will involve a few (at least two) homeopaths prescribing the homeopathic remedy to patients and then writing a report. These reports will unanimously state that, after the remedy had been administered, the symptoms improved considerably. (I know this because they always do improve – with or without treatment.)
These reports will then be put together – perhaps we should call this a meta-analysis? – and the overall finding will be nice, positive and helpful for the American company.
And now, we all understand what homeopaths, more precisely the Faculty of Homeopathy, consider to be evidence.
Today is Charles’ 70th birthday! On previous occasions, I have published a detailed review of Charles’ outstanding achievements in the realm of alternative medicine. For his 70th, I feel that something else is required. How about a personal birthday card?
HAPPY BIRTHDAY YOUR ROYAL HIGHNESS!
I know, it is not easy to become 70, but you must look on the bright side: you are reasonably healthy, you are not exactly a poor man, and you even managed to change the rules and marry the woman you have always loved. What else could you wish for?
Yes, I know, your big idea of ‘Integrated Medicine’ is not doing all that brilliantly. Your book ‘Harmony‘ was viciously ridiculed, and the ‘best of both worlds’ turns out to be a bit of a strange idea. The thing is that, in healthcare, there is only one real world: the world of reality, facts and evidence. The other is the unreal world of fantasy, wishful thinking and mysticism.
We all know you love homeopathy. After listening to Laurence van der Post in your younger days, it would have been lovely for you, had the notion of a remedy based on a mystical vital force been true. It would have avoided all the complexities of reality. But now, at the age of 70, you must have realised that make belief is a poor substitute for fact.
It has become all but impossible to ignore the truth about homeopathy. Only last year, the European Academies Science Advisory Council concluded that “the claims for homeopathy are implausible and inconsistent with established scientific concepts” and that “there are no known diseases for which there is robust, reproducible evidence that homeopathy is effective beyond the placebo effect”. Such brutal realism must be painful. And now the NHS decided to ditch homeopathy completely. All your homeopathic spider memos for nothing!
Yes, it is tough to grow old. But perhaps it is not too late. You could try to forget about van der Post and all your other ill-advised ‘advisers’. Instead, you could gather a few young, energetic, bright scientists and let them inspire you with the beauty and excitement of reality and science. You could still become a force for real progress in healthcare.
Think about it and keep looking on the bright side.
Many happy returns
Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht, the infamous start of the Nazi holocaust. For Cristian Becker, a German PR man who is currently spending much of his time promoting homeopathy and attacking critics of homeopathy, it was the occasion to publish this tweet:
Today, on 9 November, all fundamentalist GWUP-sceptics such as Natalie Grams and Edzard Ernst reflect on what hate can bring about. First, one hates homeopathy, then advocates of homeopathy, and then it can seem as though one tolerates violence.
I struggle to respond to such vitriolic stupidity.
What makes this even more shocking is the fact that, as far as I see, none of the professional bodies of German homeopathy have distanced themselves for it.
I know Dr Grams a little, and can honestly say that neither of us ‘hates’ homeopathy nor homeopaths. And crucially, we both detest violence.
If such pseudo-arguments are now being used by the defenders of homeopathy, it mainly shows, I think, two things:
- They clearly have run out of real arguments which, in turn, suggests that the end of publicly funded homeopathy is imminent.
- Homeopathic remedies are not an effective therapy against feeble-mindedness.
The Clinic for Complementary Medicine and Diet in Oncology was opened, in collaboration with the oncology department, at the Hospital of Lucca (Italy) in 2013. It uses a range of alternative therapies aimed at reducing the adverse effects of conventional oncology treatments.
Their latest paper presents the results of complementary medicine (CM) treatment targeted toward reducing the adverse effects of anticancer therapy and cancer symptoms, and improving patient quality of life. Dietary advice was aimed at the reduction of foods that promote inflammation in favour of those with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
This is a retrospective observational study on 357 patients consecutively visited from September 2013 to December 2017. The intensity of symptoms was evaluated according to a grading system from G0 (absent) to G1 (slight), G2 (moderate), and G3 (strong). The severity of radiodermatitis was evaluated with the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group (RTOG) scale. Almost all the patients (91.6%) were receiving or had just finished some form of conventional anticancer therapy.
The main types of cancer were breast (57.1%), colon (7.3%), lung (5.0%), ovary (3.9%), stomach (2.5%), prostate (2.2%), and uterus (2.5%). Comparison of clinical conditions before and after treatment showed a significant amelioration of all symptoms evaluated: nausea, insomnia, depression, anxiety, fatigue, mucositis, hot flashes, joint pain, dysgeusia, neuropathy.
The authors concluded that the integration of evidence-based complementary treatments seems to provide an effective response to cancer patients’ demand for a reduction of the adverse effects of anticancer treatments and the symptoms of cancer itself, thus improving patient’s quality of life and combining safety and equity of access within public healthcare systems. It is, therefore, necessary for physicians (primarily oncologists) and other healthcare professionals in this ﬁeld to be appropriately informed about the potential beneﬁts of CMs.
Why do I call this ‘wishful thinking’?
I have several reasons:
- A retrospective observational study cannot establish cause and effect. It is likely that the findings were due to a range of factors unrelated to the interventions used, including time, extra attention, placebo, social desirability, etc.
- Some of the treatments in the therapeutic package were not CM, reasonable and evidence-based. Therefore, it is likely that these interventions had positive effects, while CM might have been totally useless.
- To claim that the integration of evidence-based complementary treatments seems to provide an effective response to cancer patients’ is pure fantasy. Firstly, some of the CMs were certainly not evidence-based (the clinic’s prime focus is on homeopathy). Secondly, as already pointed out, the study does not establish cause and effect.
- The notion that it is necessary for physicians (primarily oncologists) and other healthcare professionals in this ﬁeld to be appropriately informed about the potential beneﬁts of CMs is not what follows from the data. The paper shows, however, that the authors of this study are in need to be appropriately informed about EBM as well as CM.
I stumbled across this paper because a homeopath cited it on Twitter claiming that it proves the effectiveness of homeopathy for cancer patients. This fact highlights why such publications are not just annoyingly useless but acutely dangerous. They mislead many cancer patients to opt for bogus treatments. In turn, this demonstrates why it is important to counterbalance such misinformation, critically evaluate it and minimise the risk of patients getting harmed.
Boiron is the world’s largest manufacturer of homeopathic products. The 2016 sales figures of the company amounted to 614 489 000 Euro. Boiron has recently been very active promoting its products, not least on Twitter where I note about 10 of their promotional tweets every day. I saw the following tweet yesterday:
Acidil temporarily relieves occasional heartburn, acid indigestion, bloating or upset stomach. (link: http://bit.ly/2gCARdu)
This prompted me to look up what this product contains. The ingredients (potencies) are as follows:
- Abies nigra (4C)
- Carbo vegetablilis (4C)
- Nux vomica (4C)
- Robinia pseudoacacia (4C)
Just to remind you, 4C means the substance is diluted at a rate of 1: 100 000 000. Even the most deadly poison would be ineffective at such a dilution.
So, how can they claim that it is effective?
To find the answer, I did a Medline search and found the only listed trial of Acidil (if anyone knows of further studies, please let me know). Here is its abstract:
It is unclear whether the benefits that some patients derive from complementary and integrative medicine (CIM) are related to the therapies recommended or to the consultation process as some CIM provider visits are more involved than conventional medical visits. Many patients with gastrointestinal conditions seek out CIM therapies, and prior work has demonstrated that the quality of the patient-provider interaction can improve health outcomes in irritable bowel syndrome, however, the impact of this interaction on gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is unknown. We aimed to assess the safety and feasibility of conducting a 2 x 2 factorial design study preliminarily exploring the impact of the patient-provider interaction, and the effect of an over-the-counter homeopathic product, Acidil, on symptoms and health-related quality of life in subjects with GERD.
24 subjects with GERD-related symptoms were randomized in a 2 x 2 factorial design to receive 1) either a standard visit based on an empathic conventional primary care evaluation or an expanded visit with questions modeled after a CIM consultation and 2) either Acidil or placebo for two weeks. Subjects completed a daily GERD symptom diary and additional measures of symptom severity and health-related quality of life.
There was no significant difference in GERD symptom severity between the Acidil and placebo groups from baseline to follow-up (p = 0.41), however, subjects who received the expanded visit were significantly more likely to report a 50% or greater improvement in symptom severity compared to subjects who received the standard visit (p = 0.01). Total consultation length, perceived empathy, and baseline beliefs in CIM were not associated with treatment outcomes.
An expanded patient-provider visit resulted in greater GERD symptom improvement than a standard empathic medical visit. CIM consultations may have enhanced placebo effects, and further studies to assess the active components of this visit-based intervention are warranted.
The question I have is simple: why are they allowed to make false medical claims?
Is there anyone out there who can answer it?
The ‘CANADIAN COLLEGE OF HOMEOPATHIC MEDICINE’ has posted an interesting announcement:
Homeopathic Treatment of Asthma with Homeopath Kim Elia www.wholehealthnow.com/bios/kim-elia
In asthma, bronchial narrowing results in coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and a sense of tightness in the chest. Traditional treatments, such as bronchodilator and steroidal inhalers, reasonably control the condition, but cure is elusive. Side effects and long-term use can eventually be quite damaging, including impairment of immune function and growth rate in children. Homeopathy has an excellent track record in treating this debilitating illness, and offers the hope of weaning off of traditional injurious treatments, replacing them with a far gentler and deeper-acting solution.
About Kim Elia
Students from around the world have expressed appreciation and admiration for Kim’s superb knowledge of the history of homeopathy, his deep understanding of homeopathic prescribing, and his extensive knowledge of materia medica. He is known for his dynamic and distinctive teaching methods which reflect his immense knowledge of the remedies and his genuine desire to educate everyone about this affordable and effective healing modality.
END OF QUOTE
There a few facts that the college seems to have forgotten to mention or even deliberately distorted:
- Asthma is a potentially lethal disease; each year, hundreds of patients die during acute asthma attacks.
- The condition can be controlled with conventional treatments.
- The best evidence fails to show that homeopathy is an effective treatment of asthma.
- Therefore, encouraging homeopathy as an alternative for asthma, risks the unnecessary, premature death of many patients.
And who is Kim Elia?
- Apparently, he was inspired to study homeopathy when he read Gandhi’s quote about homeopathy, “Homeopathy cures a greater percentage of cases than any other method of treatment. Homeopathy is the latest and refined method of treating patients economically and non-violently.” He has been studying homeopathy since 1987 and graduated from the New England School of Homeopathy.
- Kim is the former Director of Nutrition at Heartwood Institute, California.
- He was the Director of Fasting at Heartwood.
- Kim was a trainer at a company providing whole food nutritional supplements.
- Kim serves as CEO of WholeHealthNow, the distributors of OPUS Homeopathic Software and Books in North America.
- Kim provides and coordinates software training and support, and oversees new software development with an international team of homeopaths and software developers.
- He was inspired to create the Historic Homeopathic Timeline, and is responsible for a growing library of recorded interviews and presentations with today’s world renowned homeopaths.
- Kim was the principal instructor and developer of the four year classical homeopathy program at the Hahnemann Academy in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan.
- He is currently developing new homeopathy projects.
What the site does not reveal is his expertise in treating asthma.
The Canadian College of Homeopathic Medicine claims to be dedicated to the training of homeopaths according to the highest standard of homeopathic education, emphasizing the art and practice of homeopathy as outlined in Hahnemanns’s Organon of the Medical Art. We aim to further the field of homeopathy as a whole through the provision of quality, primary homeopathic care.
If that is what the highest standard of homeopathic education looks like, I would prefer an uneducated homeopath any time!
According to the 2014 European Social Survey, Spain is relatively modest when it comes to using alternative therapies. While countries such as Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Sweden and Switzerland all have 1-year prevalence figures of over 30%, Spain only boasts a meagre 17%. Yet, its opposition to bogus treatments has recently become acute.
In 2016, 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.”
A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of being invited to a science festival in Bilbao and was impressed by the buoyant sceptic movement in Spain. At the time, two of my books were published in Spanish and received keen interest by the Spanish press.
And now, it has been reported that Spain’s Ministry of Health has released a list of only 2,008 homeopathic products whose manufacturers will have to apply for an official government license for if they wish to continue selling them. The homeopathic producers have until April 2019 to prove that their remedies actually work, which may very well completely slash homeopathic products in Spain.
It’s the latest blow for Spain’s homeopathy industry, once worth an estimated €100 million but which has seen a drop in public trust and therefore sales of around 30 percent in the last five years. Spain’s Health Ministry stopped allowing homeopathy treatments from being prescribed as part of people’s social security benefits, along with acupuncture, herbal medicine and body-based practices such as osteopathy, shiatsu or aromatherapy.
“Homeopathy is an alternative therapy that has not shown any scientific evidence that it works” Spanish Minister of Health Maria Luisa Carcedo is quoted as saying in La Vanguardia in response to the homeopathic blacklist. “I’m committed to combatting all forms of pseudoscience.”
The researcher who proves that highly diluted homeopathics work beyond placebo might be in for a Nobel Prize. The scientist who finds a cure for addictions probably also deserves one. The investigator who does both might get two Nobels. The question is, do these Brazilian homeopaths fulfil these criteria?
Their study investigated the effectiveness and tolerability of homeopathic Q-potencies of opium and E. coca in the integrative treatment of cocaine craving in a community-based psychosocial rehabilitation setting. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group, eight-week pilot trial was performed at the Psychosocial Attention Center for Alcohol and Other Drugs (CAPS-AD), Sao Carlos/SP, Brazil. Eligible subjects included CAPS-AD patients between 18 and 65 years of age, with an International Classification of Diseases-10 diagnosis of cocaine dependence. The patients were randomly assigned to two treatment groups: psychosocial rehabilitation plus homeopathic Q-potencies of opium and E. coca (homeopathy group), and psychosocial rehabilitation plus indistinguishable placebo (placebo group). The main outcome measure was the percentage of cocaine-using days. Secondary measures were the Minnesota Cocaine Craving Scale and 12-Item Short-Form Health Survey scores. Adverse events were recorded in both groups.
The study population comprised 54 patients who attended at least one post-baseline assessment, out of the 104 subjects initially enrolled. The mean percentage of cocaine-using days in the homeopathy group was 18.1% compared to 29.8% in the placebo group (P < 0.01). Analysis of the Minnesota Cocaine Craving Scale scores showed no between-group differences in the intensity of cravings, but results significantly favored homeopathy over placebo in the proportion of weeks without craving episodes and the patients’ appraisal of treatment efficacy for reduction of cravings. Analysis of 12-Item Short-Form Health Survey scores found no significant differences. Few adverse events were reported: 0.57 adverse events/patient in the homeopathy group compared to 0.69 adverse events/patient in the placebo group.
The authors concluded that a psychosocial rehabilitation setting improved recruitment but was not sufficient to decrease dropout frequency among Brazilian cocaine treatment seekers. Psychosocial rehabilitation plus homeopathic Q-potencies of opium and E. coca were more effective than psychosocial rehabilitation alone in reducing cocaine cravings. Due to high dropout rate and risk of bias, further research is required to confirm our findings, with specific focus on strategies to increase patient retention.
I am glad that the authors mention the high dropout rate which clearly is a serious limitation of this fascinating trial. Had they analysed the data according to an intention to treat analysis – which, I think, would have been a better statistical approach – the results would almost certainly have been negative.
But there are other puzzling issues about this study:
- The authors say they used homeopathic remedies. I think, however, that this is not the case. Homeopathy is defined as a therapy that follows the ‘like cures like’ principle. If the remedy is based on the causative agent, as in the case of the present study, it follows a different principle (identical cures identical) and is not called homeopathy but isopathy (here an explanation from my book: “Isopathy is the use of potentised remedies which are derived from the causative agent of the disease that is being treated. It thus does not follow the supreme law of homeopathy; instead of ‘like cures like’, instead it postulates that identical cures identical. An example of isopathy is the use of potentised grass pollen to treat patients suffering from hay fever. Some of the methodologically best trials that generated a positive result were done using isopathy; they therefore did not test homeopathy and its principal assumption, the ‘like cures like’ theory. They are nevertheless regularly used by proponents of homeopathy to argue that homeopathy is effective”). This means that the above trial does, in fact, NOT test the defining principle of homeopathy.
- Moreover, I fail to understand why the authors called their trial a PILOT study. It does not explore the feasibility of a more definitive trial, but tests the effectiveness of the intervention. It is thus NOT a pilot study.
- I cannot help being suspicious of authors who, based on an extremely implausible, such as homeopathy, publish one paper after the next with positive or encouraging results.
- I am also puzzled by the fact that, in 2012 and 2013, the authors have published two previous studies along the same lines that produced encouraging results. Surely 6/5 years are a long enough period for INDEPENDENT replications to be carried out and published. And surely, a finding like this would have been replicated several times by now.
- I furthermore find it odd that the authors chose to publish their findings in the JOURNAL OF INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE. This is a 3rd class journal read only by those who promote alternative therapies. The notion that a treatment of addiction has finally be found should appear in journals like SCIENCE, NATURE, NEJM, etc.
- Considering the extremely low prior probability of their hypothesis, the authors should perhaps have not used the conventional 5% probability threshold, but one two dimensions lower.
- I have not found a statement regarding informed consent of the study participants.
So, are these Brazilian homeopaths likely to be on the next list of Nobel laureates?
I have my doubts.
What do you think?